Ministers and civil servants involved in the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic will have to hand over WhatsApp messages to the Covid-19 public inquiry, it has been announced.
Baroness Heather Hallett, chairman of the probe into the government’s handling of the pandemic, has made clear that she will use all powers available under the Inquiries Act to demand access to messages from officials who helped form the UK’s response to Covid-19.
She said: “What I can do is assure the bereaved that this inquiry is in the process of obtaining all relevant WhatsApp messages from all relevant groups. Therefore, this inquiry will conduct a full and thorough investigation into and analysis of what the messages mean for the public of the United Kingdom.”
It follows the release of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages with Boris Johnson, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, and several others in government - after they were leaked by the co-author of his book, Isabel Oakeshott.
The exchanges, which first emerged in The Telegraph after the newspaper obtained copies of more than 100,000 messages between government officials, revealed that Chris Whitty told Hancock in April 2020 that there should be testing for “all going into care homes”.
Hancock said the advice represented a “good positive step” and that it must be “put into the doc”, to which an aide responded that he had sent the request “to action”.
But it seemed that Hancock ultimately rejected the guidance, later messaging an aide: “Tell me if I’m wrong but I would rather leave [care home testing] out and just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital. I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters.”
Other WhatsApp messages show that in September 2020, when there was a backlog in testing, officials couriered Jacob Rees-Mogg a Covid test to his home for one of his children. A government aide messaged Hancock to say the lab had “lost” the original test for one of the then-House of Commons leader’s children, “so we’ve got a courier going to their family home tonight”.
The former Health Secretary denied the “distorted account”, with his spokesperson alleging that the leaked messages had “intentionally excluded” key exchanges and been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
He has already handed over all relevant messages and emails to the inquiry, insisting that it is the proper forum through which to consider actions during the crisis. Other ministers and officials will be expected to offer access to their exchanges soon.
The official public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic was announced by ex-Prime Minister Johnson almost two years ago, with the probe first beginning in October 2022. However, full public hearings are yet to begin - and concerns have already been raised that the examination of millions of WhatsApp messages will further delay proceedings.
Some ministers and officials appear to have assumed their WhatsApp and text messages would remain private. Lord Bethell for instance, who served as a junior minister in the Department of Health and Social Care during the pandemic, previously admitted he had deleted exchanges - claiming that his phone had become “overloaded” during a High Court case on Covid testing contracts.
Initial outlines have said the Covid-19 inquiry will focus on three core modules: first, examining the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic, second, examining decisions taken by Johnson and his then team of ministers, and third, investigating the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals, and staff.
Decisions taken by government figures, ministers, and civil servants in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will also be examined as part of the inquiry.