A health minister under Boris Johnson during the pandemic has said large decisions were not made over WhatsApp groups and the messages were mainly about coffee orders, in response to the Covid inquiry row.
Lord Bethell said that it was “plain wrong” to suggest that all messages sent during the pandemic were relevant to the inquiry, arguing that they mostly would have consisted of “fluffy material” that did not include “meaningful decisions”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “The decision-making took place through the red box system with formal submissions by officials minuted meetings between ministers and officials and an extremely well-organised Whitehall machine. There’s no way that big decisions were taken over WhatsApp.”
The Conservative peer added that most of the WhatsApp messages sent by ministers during the pandemic were “about coffee and who needs to have what kind of coffee for what kind of meeting”, while others were used to share data related to “the spread of the disease or on the progress of the vaccine”.
He said he supported the Government’s legal challenge to prevent all WhatsApp messages from being released, arguing that many were not relevant to the scope of the inquiry.
“The reality is that when you have several 100,000 WhatsApp and you’re going through them one by one and trying to decide on the edge cases, whether or not they should be included, you end up having to surrender an enormous amount that I would typically term personal, but on a wide interpretation of the scope might be included, and therefore in order to achieve the greatest amount of candour you put in stuff that you wouldn’t reasonably be happy with,” Lord Bethell continued.
The Government has entered into a legal battle with the Covid inquiry, which is due to begin hearings on Tuesday, over demands to hand over all unredacted WhatsApp messages sent by senior ministers at the height of the pandemic.
The Cabinet Office offered to go through WhatsApp messages from Boris Johnson, and other former and current figures in Government, together with officials from the inquiry team, so the material could be redacted under a joint agreement.
But this offer was rejected by the inquiry and the Cabinet Office has decided to launch a judicial review, challenging the inquiry’s demands for disclosure of the messages in full.
Mr Johnson has told the inquiry he is happy to hand over his unredacted messages directly to the team but has reportedly been warned that he could lose the public funding for his legal defence in the inquiry if he “undermines the Government’s position” or releases evidence without permission.
According to The Sunday Times, Government lawyers wrote to Mr Johnson last week saying the money would “cease to be available” if he broke any of their conditions, which include sending any statements and documents to the Cabinet Office for redaction and approval before they are submitted.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said on Sunday that there was “absolutely no sense that the Government will restrict what Boris Johnson wants to say”, but added that “if you use taxpayers’ funds, obviously, you should make sure you’re using them appropriately”.
He told Sky News: “I think a letter has been sent from the Cabinet Office to him to say that as he is using taxpayers’ funds to pay for his lawyers then that funding has to be used for appropriate purposes.
“But he can advance whatever arguments he wants to and make whatever statements he wishes in his witness statement to the inquiry.”
The chair of the Covid inquiry and families of those bereaved by the virus will this week make their first public responses to the Government’s legal action to block disclosure of Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages.
Baroness Hallett will chair a preliminary hearing on Tuesday into Module 2 of her inquiry, which is investigating the Government’s handling of the pandemic between 2020 and 2022, at which she is expected to comment on the Cabinet Office’s judicial review.
It will be the final session before the first public evidence-taking hearings begin on 13 June. That will focus on Module 1 of the inquiry, on the UK’s pandemic preparedness.
The Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group is also expected to add their full reaction to the legal battle at a press conference with the TUC in London on Monday.