Sunak fails to hand over WhatsApp messages to Covid Inquiry

PM blames officials for not preserving messages he did not back up when switching phones
Sunak told the Covid Inquiry he cannot access some WhatsApp messages because he failed to back them up. Photo: Avpics/Alamy Stock Photo

Rishi Sunak has failed to hand over some of the WhatsApp messages he sent at the height of the pandemic to the Covid Inquiry because he failed to back them up, it has emerged.

In a witness statement to the inquiry, which is taking evidence today, the PM said he did “not have access” to some messages he sent while he was chancellor, the Guardian reported.

The Cabinet Office has been ordered to hand over communications sent by ministers and senior civil servants between the end of January 2020 and the end of February 2022 to the inquiry, which is investigating the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.

In July, the High Court ordered the messages to be handed over following a legal struggle in which the Cabinet Office challenged the inquiry’s demand for former prime minister Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, diaries and notebooks.

The department initially sought to withhold  "unambiguously irrelevant" communications, but accepted the court’s ruling.

But Sunak’s statement to the inquiry, seen by the Guardian, said: “Having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years, I do not have access to the WhatsApp messages that I sent or received during the relevant time, and neither were the messages backed up.

“My expectation would be that if the officials on those groups had considered that any information being communicated by WhatsApp message needed to be preserved to form part of the official HMT record, then those officials would have taken steps to ensure that happened.”

The revelation comes after significant controversy over missing messages from Johnson's time as PM.

In June, it emerged that 16 months’ worth of messages were missing, which was said to be related to a “well-publicised security breach” in April 2021, when Johnson switched phones after it emerged his phone number was widely available on the internet.

Johnson then said he had forgotten the pass code to the phone, which was recovered by technical experts.

The same month, the Cabinet Office sought a judicial review of the breadth of the inquiry's demands for information, arguing much of its requests related to “irrelevant” information and represented an “unwarranted intrusion” into the work of government.

However, the court ruled inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett should instead receive all the WhatsApps requested and return those she deemed irrelevant.

Commenting on Sunak's witness statement, a government spokesperson said: “The government established the Covid inquiry to transparently establish the facts and we have submitted more than 55,000 documents in support of their work. To ensure the integrity of the inquiry is not undermined it is vital that any evidence submitted is heard in context and in full and so we will not be commenting on leaks.

“We are concerned that selective sections of evidence appear to have been handed to the media and all possible steps should be taken to guard against further leaks.”

The second module of the inquiry opened this morning, with ministers and officials set to give evidence on “core UK decision-making and political governance”.

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