Former health minister Lord Bethell has played down the role of WhatsApp messages in policymaking during the coronavirus pandemic after it was reported that three groups were used to make key decisions.
He defended the Government’s decision to seek a judicial review in its bid to limit disclosure of material to the Covid Inquiry, insisting “personal” information could end up being unnecessarily surrendered.
Lord Bethell insisted it is “plain wrong” to suggest WhatsApp had been used for major decision-making during the pandemic, claiming most of his own messages on the platform over that period had related to coffee orders.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We need these tramlines, that’s why the court case is a good idea.
It comes after the Times reported that three WhatsApp groups with members including then-prime minister Boris Johnson, former health secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case were used for decision-making during the pandemic.
Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, and communications director Lee Cain were also reportedly in the groups, one of which had a membership of around 30.
A Whitehall source told the paper: “Senior officials including the Cabinet Secretary were in the critical WhatsApp groups and their phones aren’t compromised. They can easily send the inquiry some of the most important messages.”
He has vowed to send all his messages to the official investigation directly, circumventing the Cabinet Office.
Cabinet Office lawyers have written to the former prime minister to warn he could lose public funding for legal advice if he breaks conditions such as releasing evidence without permission.
He has had legal advice paid for by the taxpayer, but the Sunday Times detailed the letter which stated the money could “cease to be available” if he seeks to “undermine” the Government’s position.
It comes ahead of inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett on Tuesday making her first public remarks since the Government sought legal action.
The Cabinet Office missed Lady Hallett’s deadline set on Thursday to hand over the requested material, with the department insisting that messages it deems “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry need not be published.
Home Office minister Robert Jenrick defended the position over the weekend, telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme the Government is not asking for “special treatment” but that “the normal way to do this is to set reasonable parameters”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Labour would “hand over whatever is required” to the Covid-19 Inquiry, if his party was in power.
“If you had a Labour government, and we set up an inquiry of this importance, of course we would co-operate and hand over whatever is required by the chair of the inquiry,” he told broadcasters on Monday.
“And I’ll tell you for why – because many people lost relatives in Covid, many people lost their jobs and their livelihoods and they deserve answers, and so I’ll be very clear – we would hand over whatever is required by the chair and we would do it having a mind for those that lost so much during Covid.”