‘It appals me’: ex-GCHQ director condemns government WhatsApp use

David Omand says informal comms should not be used to discuss important government information
Photo: Steven May/Alamy Live News

By Tevye Markson

31 May 2023

A former senior civil servant has said it “appals" him that WhatsApp is being used in government to make important decisions.

WhatsApp has become one of the most popular ways of communicating among ministers and officials, but Sir David Omand, a former Home Office permanent secretary and GCHQ director, warned against using such an informal method to discuss important information.

“It appals me to think that important decisions affecting our health and welfare are being taken, and opinions about them being shaped, by these informal exchanges,” Omand told BBC Radio 4’s PM show.

“It struck me from what was released in the wake of Matt Hancock’s resignation that quite a lot of that was quite important signalling between people in change. And that worries me that that it’s being done through very informal means,” he added.

WhatsApp was controversially used throughout the Covid pandemic to discuss important decisions, with the more than 100,000 leaked messages involving Hancock, then health secretary, giving an insight into its significant role in policymaking.

In April, officials and ministers were banned from using non-government communications platforms such as WhatsApp for sharing anything above the government’s lowest level of security classification. 

Omand has also backed Covid Inquiry chair Heather Hallett's demands that the Cabinet Office hand over former prime minister Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages ahead of the upcoming inquiry.

No 10 has claimed the exchanges are “irrelevant” to the inquiry. But Omand said Hallett will only “get to the bottom of” what parts of the pandemic were and weren’t well managed, and if there was enough leadership, “by intruding into what the ministers of the time probably thought when they were just firing off views through WhatsApp, as they might have been done if they’d bumped into each other over a cup of coffee before a cabinet meeting”.

“I’m on her side, Lady Hallett’s side,” he added. “I work on the assumption that she will have established some hypotheses that she will want to test against real evidence. If she hasn’t got the real evidence then her inquiry is very difficult to pursue to a conclusion.”

Omand, who was the Cabinet Office's security and intelligence coordinator from 2002 to 2005, used the Suez Crisis as an example of the pitfalls of failing to establish a full picture.

“One of the things that historians often get wrong when they decide crucial events like the Suez Crisis in 1956 is that there were other things going on in 1956, such as in Hungary,” he said.

“So ministers get pulled in different directions, they have different priorities. If the purpose of asking for this material is to establish what else was going on and how engaged were ministers in one crisis – the arrival of Covid – against all the other things they were trying to manage, that’s a perfectly legitimate question. In fact, quite an important question.”

It is also much more important to unearth how Covid was managed than to “safeguard the amour-propre” of ministers, Omand added, in response to claims from No.10 that the messages pertain to private and personal information.

Elsewhere in the interview, the former senior civil servant also explained how to avoid a crisis becoming a disaster and espoused the potential benefits of AI amid concerns from experts that it could lead to the extinction of humanity.

Omand, who has a book out on Thursday on how to survive a crisis, said governments must focus on preparation, rehearsal of scenarios and investing in resilience to avoid disaster scenarios.

“I see a crisis as poised between, on the one hand, being able to just manage it and, on the other hand, disaster,” he added.

On AI, he said he was not worried about machines dominating the world as that eventuality is “a very long way away”. He instead outlined the potential “enormous” upside if the government “organises” itself.

“If you want cancer diagnoses improved, if you want new drugs discovered, the upside is really big [as is] the economic upside of getting on top of this, being a world leader,” he said.

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