WhatsApp corruption was in plain sight from the beginning

by | 30 Oct 2023

It has taken a remarkably long time for the Scottish Government to be held to account for what is clearly breaches of acceptable practice in record-keeping. Let's hope the Covid Inquiry becomes a final reckoning for WhatsApp Government.

And so, finally, it looks like Scottish Government is being held to account for its refusal to govern according to the standards that are required of a government. This has been a remarkably long time coming. All the knowledge anyone needed to hold them to account for this was available at the time these things were happening. There is no excuse for the media.

Indeed, at times I’ve felt like something of a lone voice in trying to get people to take this seriously. I’m going to focus here on the WhatsApp scandal in relation to pandemic management, but this went much further than that.

The quickest possible recap of this is that the Scottish Government has been destroying records of how it made decisions during the pandemic and it had no right to do that and this represents outright corruption on the part of the government. I don’t use that wordly lightly in this circumstance and I’ll return to why I have chosen to use it at the end.

For a longer recap, you could read this piece I wrote at the time. The Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic was a long, long way off the ‘competent’ rating the public and most of the commentator class gave it based on some TV shows the First Minister ran.

The reality went like this: first they undertook a full cover-up of the first outbreak of Covid in Scotland and refused to tell anyone it had happened, the truth only coming out many weeks later after work by investigative journalists at the BBC. The second thing they did was nothing – they didn’t attend Cobra meetings, call for a lockdown or many any preparations.

The third thing they did was to try and offload responsibility for the pandemic on to Westminster by adopting a ‘Four Nations’ approach in which they just did whatever London did. I described this at the time as ‘herd immunity’ – political immunity for the politicians derived from all doing precisely the same thing.

And the fourth thing they did was to decide that the UK policy of sending elderly people out of hospitals and into care homes without testing them for Covid (a policy which in itself has been described by legal figures as ‘criminal negligence) didn’t go far enough. They tested some elderly patients, found they had Covid – but sent them to care homes anyway.

By the end of this inquiry I hope they will have successfully confirmed the assessment that I have been pushing for a long time – this was a degree of negligence which went waaaay beyond the normal mistakes and errors that others make to the degree that I believe Sturgeon and Freeman were the only politicians in the entire world who did this.

The fifth thing they did was begin an elaborate cover-up. This too I hope the Covid Inquiry unpicks. They set WhatsApp messages to self-delete. They undertook straightforward bad practice – when they finally revised the guidance on decanting elderly people from hospitals to care homes they not only destroyed all evidence of the previous guidelines so they couldn’t be compared, they actually created an entirely new webpage for them so people couldn’t use internet archiving to find them.

Let me be clear so you don’t misunderstand; Boris Johnstone didn’t do this (or his civil servants didn’t let him). You’re absolutely not meant to change guidelines and remove the old ones for precisely those cross-referencing reasons. I suspect those original guidelines would not help the Scottish Government.

When FoI-ed to find out what advice the Scottish Government was working from in the run-up to lockdown and over the first six weeks of the lockdown, they were unable to present so much as a side of A4

There was lots of cover-up going on. Another consequence of this inquiry I hope to see is some harsh scrutiny of Public Health Scotland, which seems to me to have been repeatedly creating methodologies not to inform the public of the impact of government policy in Scotland but to hide it.

They produced an absolutely bogus study claiming that the care home decanting had no impact on care home deaths – and then when anyone with a basic knowledge of statistical methodology savaged the methodology they eventually had to withdraw the paper based on the fact it was clearly bollocks. However, the job was done – the media reported the initial, bogus ‘clears Sturgeon and Freeman’ reports and the care home issue was closed.

Or nearly, because then we get to the heart of the cover-up – the belief on Sturgeon’s part that she could talk her way out of anything. Sadly, given Scotland’s media, she was right. When Neil Findlay challenged her on the decanting policy in parliament she actually broke down and cried and made the whole thing about how hard all this was on her.

She didn’t answer the question, and the presiding officer didn’t pull her up on it. From there I think she realised that her powers of bullshitting were her best bet, so, again unique among world leaders, she decided she was going to do a daily TV show where she could enact her ‘talk my way out of anything’ strategy without any real hinderance.

So let me ask you a question out of all this – can you remember what was discovered during the first lockdown about the advice that the Scottish Government was working on when it did all of the above? You see, I suspect that many of you can’t. That’s my point.

Because while another part of her cover-up plan was to effectively suspend Freedom of Information arrangements (yet again, as far as I can tell the only world leader to do this and certainly the only one in Britain), it still came out that they didn’t have any advice at all.

(I’m struggling to find that link. Web searches for all of the worst incidents during the pandemic result in a suspicious amount of spurious Scottish Government pages coming up first, almost like they’re actively trying to influence search page rankings or something, almost like a cover-up…)

I will break paragraph there because this needs to sink in. When FoI-ed to find out what advice the Scottish Government was working from in the run-up to lockdown and over the first six weeks of the lockdown, they were unable to present so much as a side of A4.

I warned at the time that this would put an awful lot of weight on the informal communication channels that were clearly used instead (what I called ‘Coffee with Calderwood’, the process where unminuted meetings between Sturgeon and her then Chief Medical Officer seem to have set all this policy) in telling a future inquiry what happened.

For that reason I indicated that pressure should be brought to bear to ensure that that record was properly protected. I did that because not for a second did I believe that that wouldn’t be part of the cover-up as well.

We know more about the shopping list for Roman ceremonial occasions than we do about the early weeks of the pandemic

There is absolutely no benefit of the doubt to be given here. We have known all of this for a very long time. Sturgeon did not like meetings to be minuted if she was pushing her luck at the meetings or was engaged in questionable practice. We know this in so many contexts – the ferries scandal, the Gupta aluminium scandal, meetings with colleges over crumbling concrete, the meetings with government lawyers in the Salmond case, you really can take your pick of many.

We know they obstruct transparency and disclosure up to and beyond the letter of the law. We know that from almost everything they’ve done – the repeated obstruction of Freedom of Information, the way they tried to hide legal advice from the Salmond inquiry and then drip fed it so that Sturgeon could give evidence before the most damning stuff came out, the strange difficulty finding incriminating emails…

The cover-up continued with the Bute House Agreement – Sturgeon identified that she’d have got away with a chunk of the above if the Greens hadn’t voted for transparency. The coalition deal was zero to do with climate, and precisely zero to do with independence, it was rushed through to make sure the Scottish Parliament would never again force transparency on Sturgeon.

I cannot tell you enough times that this is all – all – miles outside the realms of acceptable government in the UK. Not a single item relating to government business is ‘yours’, no matter how senior in government you get. They’re all public documents. Even the ones that are protected by confidentiality are public documents. You, the public, may not be permitted to see them, but things like inquiries get access.

Everything else is just the stupid, journalist-fooling crap the Scottish Government has been getting away with for a decade. Full disclosure is promised even while the shredders are humming. All of them are desperate to share all the information they can, but not contemporaneous records, instead their own novellas on what happened in the alternative timeline they’ve been trying to feed you.

Government by WhatsApp was simply wrong. It should have been stopped by the civil service, but we also discovered that civil servants all the way up to the top were part of these WhatsApp groups and appeared to have merged seamlessly with the politicos on the groups. Those WhatsApp chats should all be protected documents if they are being used at all. Everything should.

I mean, I was a journalist and we were required to maintain our notebooks for five years in case anyone ever challenged the content of what we wrote (or worse still, sued). The Scottish Government were sending infected people into closed communities of the most vulnerable people in the country and were deleting all the evidence of why.

Let me remind you that there are three forms of corruption. The first is legalised corruption, where powerful people push governments to make their preferred form of corruption legal. That is still corruption. The second kind may or may not be illegal but is still corruption – these are best thought of as ‘normalised practices’ which are corrupt even if it is done quite commonly, or are ‘pushing interpretation of the rules into grey areas’.

The third is transactional corruption or illegal corruption, either where there is payment or reciprocity for corruption or where it breaks the law. The Scottish Government’s conduct in this affair, as in so many, is clearly corruption under those first two definitions of practices strongly against the public interest which are either not illegal or exist in a grey area. Whether it also engaged in the third kind is for the Covid Inquiry to decide.

And it is now going to find that much, much harder than it should because we know more about the shopping list for Roman ceremonial occasions than we do about the early weeks of the pandemic (because Romans were meticulous record-keepers).

At the end of this Inquiry I doubt that much will change in health policy. It is unlikely to offer an awful lot of comfort to people who have lost loved ones. But, if nothing else, I hope it utterly condemns this Scottish Government, the civil service and the entire practice of Government by WhatsApp and that this puts an end to it once and for all.

If you are communicating over government policy, use a government device where it is the civil service (or the Information Commissioner) who decides what is retained. Where people should lose their job or not and whether people should face jail sentences or not I don’t yet know. But I have some fairly strong suspicions…

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