LONDON (AP) Critics accuse the British administration of running government through WhatsApp because of the messaging app’s popularity with politicians and civil servants.
So it seems inevitable that a fight over WhatsApp messages will be at the heart of Britain’s official inquiry into the country’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands of messages exchanged during the pandemic between then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and government ministers, aides and officials are key evidence for the inquiry 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 unrelated to the investigation. He filed a legal challenge against Hallett’s order to turn over the unredacted messages.
WHAT DOES THE SURVEY INVESTIGATE?
More than 200,000 people have died in Britain after testing positive for COVID-19, one of Europe’s highest tolls, and Johnsons government decisions have been endlessly debated. Johnson agreed in late 2021 to lead an investigation after pressure from bereaved families.
The Halletts inquiry is to examine the UK’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 due to start on June 13 and last until 2026, with the former prime minister and a host of senior officials set to testify.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH WHATSAPP?
The Meta-owned messaging service has become the preferred communication tool for UK government officials and the journalists who cover them. It’s easy to use for one-on-one and group chats, and its end-to-end encryption gives users a sense of security that messages will be private.
This trust 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 reporter who was helping him write a memoir. The reporter passed them on 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 the start of 2020. She also wants to see Johnson’s notebooks and journals from the same period.
WHAT IS THE POSITION OF GOVERNMENTS?
Sunak’s government, which took office after Johnson resigned amid scandals in mid-2022, argues that some of the messages are unambiguously unrelated to the COVID-19 investigation. He claims that their publication would constitute an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of government work and into individuals’ legitimate expectations of privacy and the protection of their personal information.
On Thursday, the government’s Cabinet Office filed court papers seeking to challenge Halletts’ order for the documents. The next step will be a High Court hearing in the coming weeks.
Many lawyers think the government will lose the challenge. Under the terms of the inquiry, agreed with the government initially, Hallett has the power to summon evidence and examine witnesses under oath.
The government has an arduous task, Jonathan Jones, former head of the government’s legal department, wrote in a blog post for the Institute for Government. It is likely that the court will say that the chairperson of the investigation should be the one who decides how she does it and what documents she needs to see for that purpose.
WHAT DOES BORIS JOHNSON SAY?
Johnson has a history of friction with successor Sunak, whose July 2022 resignation from government helped oust Johnson from power.
Johnson distanced himself from the government’s position saying he was happy to deliver his messages. On Friday, he said he sent the WhatsApp messages directly to the Halletts inquiry.
But in another twist, they only cover part of the requested period. Johnson did not deliver any messages until April 2021. This period includes the early days of the pandemic when the government made fateful and still contested decisions as well as three national lockdown periods and holiday dates breaking the rules in government . buildings that led to dozens of people, including Johnson, being fined by police.
Johnson says the messages are on a phone he was ordered to stop using after reporters noticed his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.
Johnson says security told him to stop using the phone and never turn it on again. He told Hallett on Friday that he had asked the Cabinet Office to help him turn it on safely so that I could search it for any relevant documents. I propose to transmit all this material directly to you.
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