FIRST Minister Humza Yousaf has defended his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon amid growing pressure from opposition leaders over WhatsApp messages sent by Scottish ministers during the pandemic.

Facing off against Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross at FMQs in Holyrood, Yousaf hit back at claims that Sturgeon was avoiding scrutiny.

Yousaf also insisted that ministers were fully cooperating with the inquiry, and that he was handing over unredacted messages between himself and Scottish ministers, UK ministers, and even members of the opposition.

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It comes after the former first minister told journalists earlier this week that she was not a member of any WhatsApp groups during the Covid-19 pandemic, after reports alleged she had deleted a number of electronic messages.

The UK Covid Inquiry had requested messages be handed over, with Deputy First Minister Shona Robison confirming that 14,000 would be given to the probe after a legal request allowed them to be released.

Former finance secretary Kate Forbes also confirmed that she had handed over “all” messages to the probe.

But, opposition leaders piled on the pressure on Thursday as the row rumbled on.

The National:

Scots Tory leader Ross said: "People viewing this are listening to the First Minister to tell us what the Scottish Government are doing, it is not up to Humza Yousaf or any SNP minister current or former to decide what is relevant to the inquiry."

He added: "It's absolutely clear the SNP brought in an auto-delete policy after not just being told not to (do so) by UK Covid Inquiry but after Nicola Sturgeon had set up (the) Scottish Covid Inquiry.

"Nicola Sturgeon went on television to say she couldn’t withhold messages even if she wanted to, but this week it was reported that Nicola Sturgeon has deleted her WhatsApp messages.

"We know that destroying or withholding evidence from an inquiry is illegal, so does Humza Yousaf accept that if Nicola Sturgeon, or any Government minister has destroyed WhatsApp messages relevant to the inquiry, they would be breaking the law?"

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Yousaf replied: "As Douglas Ross has mentioned the former first minister, let me just remind Douglas Ross, and indeed the chamber, in terms of accountability and transparency, Nicola Sturgeon stood up day after day, virtually every single day, did 250 media briefings, 70 parliamentary statements, full accountability, full transparency, answering questions ..."

After heckling from the Tory benches increased to deafening levels, Yousaf added: "They don’t want to hear it Presiding Officer, because of course it refutes their allegations."

Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone intervened and said MSPs are "required to conduct themselves in an orderly manner".

The First Minister continued: "Can I remind the opposition, the former first minister stood up, did those daily media briefings, spoke to the public, took questions from the media, it was the opposition who wanted to stop that from happening in the first place."

The National:

Ross also claimed an "auto delete" policy introduced by the Scottish Government was the "digital equivalent of building a bonfire to torch the evidence". 

He said the policy meant officials could "cherry pick" what information could be handed over to the inquiry. 

However, Yousaf insisted he would hand over unredacted messages to the UK probe because the Scottish Government "believes in accountability". 

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“I can give an absolute commitment the Scottish Government will fully cooperate with both inquiries," he added. 

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar also challenged the First Minister on the issue of WhatsApp messages, saying Yousaf gave “no equivocation, no caveats, no grey areas” when he had confirmed that his Government would hand over messages to the inquiry in June. 

“We now know messages have been deleted," Sarwar (below) said. 

The National:

“This is about the conduct of the Scottish Government, so can the First Minister tell us, of the 70 ministers and officials, how many have failed to comply with a do-not-destroy notice and how many have deleted messages?”

The First Minister said it would be a “pretty serious breach” of the confidentiality of the inquiry to ask current and former ministers what they had supplied.

The row over WhatsApp messages began last week after Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the UK inquiry, said “no messages” from within the Scottish Government had yet been provided.