LONDON — Critics accuse the British administration of running “government by WhatsApp” because of the popularity of the messaging app with politicians and officials.
So it feels inevitable that a tussle over WhatsApp messages is at the heart of Britain’s official inquiry into how the country handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands of messages exchanged during the pandemic between then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and government ministers, aides and officials form key evidence for the investigation chaired by retired judge Heather Hallett. The Conservative government, now led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, wants to be able to edit the messages before handing them over, saying some are personal and irrelevant to the inquiry. It has filed a legal challenge against Hallett’s order to surrender the unredacted messages.
WHAT IS THE INQUIRY INVESTIGATING?
More than 200,000 people have died in Britain after testing positive for COVID-19, one of the highest tolls in Europe, and the decisions of Johnson’s government have been endlessly debated. Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold an investigation after pressure from bereaved families.
Hallett’s inquiry is due to scrutinize the U.K.’s preparedness for a pandemic, how the government responded and whether the “level of loss was inevitable or whether things could have been done better.”
Public hearings are scheduled to begin June 13 and last until 2026, with the former prime minister and a host of senior officials due to give evidence.
WHAT’S UP WITH WHATSAPP?
The Meta-owned messaging service has become a favorite communications tool among U.K. government officials and the journalists who cover them. It’s easy to use for both individual and group chats, and its end-to-end encryption offers users a sense of security that messages will be private.
That confidence has sometimes proved misguided. Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who helped lead Britain’s response to the virus, gave tens of thousands of his messages to a journalist who was helping him write a memoir. The journalist passed them to a newspaper, which splashed embarrassing details in a series of front-page stories.
Hallett has asked to see messages exchanged between Johnson and more than three dozen scientists and officials over two years from early 2020. She also wants to see Johnson’s notebooks and diaries from the same period.
WHAT’S THE GOVERNMENT’S POSITION?
The government of Sunak, who took office after Johnson resigned amid scandals in mid-2022, argues that some of the messages are “unambiguously irrelevant” to the COVID-19 inquiry. It says publishing them would be “an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government,” and into individuals’ “legitimate expectations of privacy and protection of their personal information.”
On Thursday, the government’s Cabinet Office filed court papers seeking to challenge Hallett’s order for the documents. The next step will be a hearing at the High Court in the coming weeks.
Many lawyers think the government will lose the challenge. Under the terms of the inquiry, agreed upon with the government at the outset, Hallett has the power to summon evidence and question witnesses under oath.
“The government has an uphill task,” Jonathan Jones, a former head of the government legal service, wrote in a blog post for the Institute for Government. “The likelihood is that the court will say the inquiry chair should be the one to decide how she goes about it, and what material she needs to see for that purpose.”
WHAT DOES BORIS JOHNSON SAY?
Johnson has a history of friction with successor Sunak, whose resignation from the government in July 2022 helped topple Johnson from power.
Johnson has distanced himself from the government’s stance by saying he is happy to hand over his messages. On Friday, he said he has sent the WhatsApp messages directly to Hallett’s inquiry.
But — in another twist — they cover only part of the requested period. Johnson hasn't passed on any messages from before April 2021. That period includes the early days of the pandemic — when the government made fateful and still-contested decisions — as well as three periods of national lockdown and the dates of rule-breaking parties in government buildings that led to scores of people, including Johnson, being fined by police.
Johnson says the messages are on a phone he was ordered to stop using after journalists noticed that his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.
Johnson says the security services told him to quit using the phone and never to turn it on again. He told Hallett on Friday that he had “asked the Cabinet Office for assistance in turning it on securely so that I can search it for all relevant material. I propose to pass all such material directly to you.”