All key figures involved in the pandemic response will be required to hand over their WhatsApp messages to the Covid public inquiry, the chairman of the independent investigation has decided.
Baroness Hallett has announced that all government ministers and advisers with a significant role in the crisis will be asked to release the private communications.
It comes in the wake of The Lockdown Files, when The Telegraph obtained more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages between Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, and dozens of senior government figures including Boris Johnson, the then prime minister; Rishi Sunak, then the chancellor; Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary; and dozens of other politicians, advisers and civil servants associated with the pandemic response.
Baroness Hallett made clear her determination to leave no stone unturned in relation to exchanges via the popular messaging app.
Responding to concerns raised by a KC representing families who lost loved ones to the virus in Scotland, the retired judge 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, not just those from Mr Hancock, and 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.”
Announced almost two years ago, the public inquiry into the UK’s response to the pandemic and its impact has yet to begin full public hearings.
A further preliminary hearing into the first module of the inquiry will take place on Tuesday.
The bill for the inquiry has already reached £85 million, with no deadline for the publication of any findings.
The sweeping terms of reference and complexity of examining the response to the pandemic in all four parts of the United Kingdom, in parallel with a separate public inquiry in Scotland, has raised fears that the whole process could take more than a decade.
The crossbench life peer’s commitment to examine millions of private WhatsApp messages will add to her team’s enormous workload and is likely to create further delays.
Mr Hancock’s messages alone amounted to some 2.3 million words and took a team of journalists almost two months to analyse.
Obtaining records from ministers and their advisers may also prove challenging.
While leading figures were acutely aware from the outset that their decisions were likely to be scrutinised by a future public inquiry – influencing how official records were kept – many appear to have assumed that informal correspondence on messaging systems such as WhatsApp would never be disclosed.
As a result, many were extraordinarily indiscreet while discussing policies – and colleagues – via the app.
In a witness statement as part of a High Court challenge over the awarding of £90 million coronavirus testing contracts, Lord Bethell claimed his phone had become “overloaded with data”, prompting him to delete records to free up storage space.
He had initially claimed he could not produce the records because he had “lost” his phone, one of three different explanations he offered for their disappearance.
Under public inquiries legislation, Baroness Hallett will have the power to compel reluctant ministers to hand over their WhatsApps if necessary.
At the preliminary hearing, Claire Mitchell KC, on behalf of the Scottish Covid Bereaved campaign group, described the release of Mr Hancock’s WhatsApps as “corrosive” and “deeply unsettling” to families she represents.
She went on to criticise what she labelled as “unhelpful interventions” from politicians who have called for the public inquiry to be accelerated.
During The Lockdown Files expose, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, was among those who demanded that it report by the end of this year.
“The Scottish Covid Bereaved rightly expect this inquiry to robustly evaluate the millions of pages of evidence and to come to its conclusions,” she said.
“There can be no convenient shortcut to this process which is now being called for by some in the public domain.”