Government WhatsApp groups were used to discuss “frothy material” such as coffee orders and not to make major policy decisions, a former Tory health minister has claimed.
Lord Bethell, who was criticised for replacing his phone during the pandemic, meaning some of his own messages were lost, said it was “plain wrong” to suggest WhatsApp was used to make key decisions during the pandemic.
The existence of three key group chats comes ahead of the first hearings of the official inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic - expected to begin next week. They were revealed amid a furious row between inquiry chair Baroness Hallett and the Cabinet Office over the government’s refusal to hand over unredacted WhatsApp messages.
But Lord Bethell played down the importance of WhatsApp groups, insisting they were used to discuss topics such as “who needs to have what kind of coffee for what kind of meeting”. Lord Bethell insisted there is “no way” big decisions were taken via the app.
One group chat named “CSA/CMO/Matt/PM/Dom” was set up in March 2020 and contained seven members, The Times reported. It included then-prime minister Mr Johnson, health secretary Mr Hancock, Mr Cummings, Mr Cain, Sir Chris, Sir Patrick and now-cabinet secretary Simon Case.
A second group named “No 10/DHSC/Covid-19” was set up a month earlier with a wider membership of more than 30. And a third group was set up in August 2020 called “CMO/CSA/No 10/Taskforce”, containing Sir Chris, Sir Patrick, Mr Case, Mr Cummings, Mr Cain and Henry Cook, an adviser whose unredacted correspondence the Cabinet Office is also refusing to hand to the inquiry, according to The Times.
Lady Hallett is expected to rebuke the government on Tuesday for refusing to hand over the messages she has requested. The Cabinet Office is seeking a judicial review to determine whether it has to hand over materials ministers argue are “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry.
Mr Johnson’s allies have claimed that Mr Sunak was refusing to hand over messages due to fears they could show plots against the former prime minister or embarrassing details about the ex-chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
But a source close to Mr Sunak told The Independent the claim was “total rubbish”, adding that the prime minister “barely uses WhatsApp”.
The former No 10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell told The Independent Mr Sunak was wrong to take legal action against the Covid inquiry because it had invited suspicion about the government’s true motives for protecting the messages.
“It’s not a great look for the government,” he said.
Lord Bethell told the BBC that WhatsApp groups he was included in were where "data from recent developments" was shared. Backing the government’s judicial review challenge, he said: "We need these tramlines, that’s why the court case is a good idea.
"The reality is that when you have several hundred thousand WhatsApps 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."