Counsel for the inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, revealed on Monday that a WhatsApp group chat had become a “core decision-making forum” for officials during the pandemic.
He has asked the former Prime Minister and other officials to release texts sent on the instant messaging service between January 2020 and February 2022, when all remaining Covid-19 restrictions were lifted. Officials have been sent “Rule 9” requests demanding that they provide a transcript of the group chats.
Module two of the inquiry will scrutinise political decisions and actions in relation to the pandemic, while module one will focus on the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic and module three will examine the impact of the pandemic on the NHS.
The timelines of Mr Johnson’s decisions to impose national lockdowns will be assessed, amid claims that the initial lockdown in March 2020 was ordered too late. It will look into the impact of alleged breaches of rules and standards, by ministers, officials and advisers, on public confidence in the Government.
Mr Keith said thousands of documents had been requested to inform the inquiry, and gave the Cabinet Office as an example. However, he stressed that the inquiry would take a “targeted approach” and seek documents relevant to the key narrative events.
In his opening address, he said the crisis placed “extraordinary levels of strain” on the UK’s health, care, financial and educational systems and businesses, on top of individual bereavements.
He said:“The disease has caused widespread and long-term physical and mental illness, grief and untold misery.
“Its impact will be felt worldwide, including in the United Kingdom, for decades to come.”
Pete Weatherby KC, representing bereaved families, said a targeted approach gives “significant latitude” to those who are subject to investigation “to be the ones that actually determine – rather than the inquiry in the first place at least – what is disclosed”.
Baroness Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge who is chairing the inquiry, will examine the effectiveness of mandatory lockdowns in controlling the spread of the disease.
This will include “the relationship between the timeliness and the length of the lockdown, and the trajectory of the disease”, Mr Keith said.
He continued: “How were economic and societal impacts, including the impact on physical health, healthcare provision, mental health, education and societal wellbeing, assessed and weighed in the balance?
“And perhaps, my lady, the single most important question: is it possible to say what the likely effects of earlier or different decisions to intervene would have been? The counterfactual proposition.
“Bluntly, would lives have been saved if the lockdowns had been imposed earlier or differently?”
Bereaved families are likely to give evidence, as well as politicians and scientific advisers.
Around 200 scientists, including all those involved in the Sage group and others in the Independent Sage group, have been asked to give evidence about the effectiveness of the pandemic response
Hannah Brady, spokeswoman for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign, said: “The public health measures taken in Government were the most critical decisions made in the pandemic.
“Here, more than ever the inquiry must listen to the bereaved to understand the impact of those decisions, and what lessons can be learnt to protect lives in the future.”
Monday’s hearing took place at a venue on Bishop’s Bridge Road in west London.