WhatsApp used for coffee orders not key Covid decisions, former minister says

Lord Bethell says big decisions were not taken via the messaging service during the pandemic
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By Tevye Markson

05 Jun 2023

Former junior health minister James Bethell has rejected claims WhatsApp was used to make big decisions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

WhatsApp groups, containing top officials such as cabinet secretary Simon Case, then-chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and key ministers and special advisers, were used to make crucial decisions during the pandemic, according to a report in The Times.

But Lord Bethell played down this claim, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There's no way that big decisions were taken over WhatsApp”.

He said most WhatsApp messages were about "coffee and who needs to have what kind of coffee for what kind of meeting", quipping that information requested by the Covid Inquiry is mostly "about frothy material, not about meaningful decision making".

Last week, ex-GCHQ director David Omand said it it "appalled" him to think that the messaging service had been used to take important decisions affecting people’s health and welfare.

But Bethell, who was a Department of Health and Social Care minister responsible for technology, innovation and life sciences from March 2020 to September 2021 – roughly the first 18 months of the UK Covid pandemic – said decision making took place through the red box system; through formal submission by officials and minutes of meetings between ministers and officials; and “an extremely well-organised Whitehall machine”.

Modern communications tools like WhatsApp allowed those in the heart of government to share up-to-date information with each other to help them respond quickly during the pandemic but were not used to make final decisions, according to Bethell.

“I think [these tools] have played a really important role but more in terms of spreading up to date information amongst a peer group of people who need to move quickly and properly to events which is part of reaching a decision it is but it's not how decisions are made,” Bethell said.

“And that's what I think is the false premise behind a lot of this obsession with WhatsApp. 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.”

The former health minister also backed the Cabinet Office’s decision to launch a judicial review over whether the Covid Inquiry has the power to request Boris Johnson's personal WhatsApp messages and diaries from his time in Downing Street during the pandemic.

The government has argued much of the information requested by Covid Inquiry chair Heather Hallett is "unambiguously irrelevant" and missed her deadline of Thursday to pass all of it on to the inquiry. Johnson's handed over "all" of the requested information on Thursday, his spokesperson claimed. However, Cabinet Office lawyers have since warned that 16 months' of messages are missing from the disclosure.

Bethell, who will give evidence to the Covid Inquiry, said: “I really welcome [the judicial review] because it is very complicated to know what WhatsApps you should surrender and what you shouldn't,” Bethell said.

“The reality is that when you have several 100,000 WhatsApps and you're going through them one by one, and trying to decide on the edge cases, whether or not they should be included, you end up having to surrender an enormous amount that I would typically term personal but on a wide interpretation of the scope might be included,” he added.

“And therefore in order to achieve the greatest amount of candour, you put in stuff that you wouldn't reasonably be happy with.”

Bethell said the Cabinet Office’s legal action should help to provide greater clarity on what kind of messages should be released to the inquiry.

Lady Hallett is, on Tuesday, expected to make her first public comments since the government’s judicial review was requested.

Home Office minister Robert Jenrick defended the legal action this weekend, telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme the government was not asking for “special treatment” but that “the normal way to do this is to set reasonable parameters”.

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