Government WhatsApp groups were never used to make important decisions during Covid and instead relayed information and discussed coffee orders, a former health minister has argued.
James Bethell, a hereditary peer whose role involved the awarding of Covid contracts, said he supported the government’s legal attempt to limit the amount of information handed to the official inquiry into the pandemic, as otherwise people would be asked to hand over messages “that you wouldn’t reasonably be happy with”.
In his case, Lord Bethell said, he was concerned about being asked to surrender messages from school-based WhatsApp groups connected to his children, as other parents included ministers and government suppliers.
Ministers last week announced high court action to avoid being forced to give unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries from Boris Johnson to the Covid inquiry, as demanded by its chair, the retired judge Heather Hallett.
Bethell, who was heavily criticised after it emerged that he replaced his phone during the pandemic, meaning some of his messages were lost, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was wrong to focus so much on WhatsApps.
“Most of the WhatsApp messages are about coffee and who needs to have what kind of coffee for what kind of meeting. You see, most of this is about frothy material, not about meaningful decision-making,” he said.
“What I’m saying is that 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 Times reported on Monday that ministers and officials did make key decisions in WhatsApp groups, one including Johnson, the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, and five senior officials and advisers, including Dominic Cummings, Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance.
But Bethell insisted such groups were about “spreading up-to-date information among a peer group of people who need to move quickly and promptly to events”.
He sad: “It’s implied that somehow people are cooking up decisions on WhatsApp and then presenting them formally in meetings. That’s not right. The meetings themselves were key and they were run extremely professionally by the civil service.”
Bethell said he welcomed the legal challenge to Hallett: “It is very complicated to know what WhatsApps you should surrender and what you shouldn’t. I have four children and four school groups that I’m on, but in those school groups there are MPs, ministers, entrepreneurs, supplies to the government. Should I be surrendering those from my school groups?
“In order to achieve the greatest amount of candour you put in stuff that you wouldn’t reasonably be happy with.”
The point of the court battle would be to set in place “tram lines” for what material should or should not be handed over, he added.
Johnson has offered to hand over his information unilaterally if the Cabinet Office continues to insist it must be redacted. In response, Cabinet Office lawyers reportedly told the former prime minister that he could lose public funding for legal advice if he tried to “frustrate or undermine” the government’s position on the inquiry.
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