The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is currently not investigating whether former health secretary Matt Hancock made a data breach when he released private WhatsApp messages about the COVID pandemic, but warned the leak showed MPs the risks posed by using WhatsApp to communicate.
"Today’s coverage does again raise questions about the risks that the use of WhatsApp and other private channels bring, particularly around transparency," an ICO spokesperson said after "a communications treasure trove" of messages were leaked by Hancock to journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who later shared them with The Telegraph.
"Last year, the ICO called for a review into the use of private messaging apps within government, and we would reiterate that call today," the statement added. "Public officials should be able to show their workings, through proper recording of decisions and through the Freedom of Information Act, to ensure that trust in those decisions is secured and lessons are learnt for the future.”
The messages that were made public detail everything from Hancock's reluctance to test all patients entering nursing homes to his decision to send a COVID test to the home of then-cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg amid a nationwide testing shortage.
“The lab lost JRM’s [Jacob Rees-Mogg's] child’s test, so we’ve got a courier going to their family home tonight, child will take the test, and courier will take it straight to the lab. Should have result tomorrow AM,” one message between Hancock and special adviser Allan Nixon read.
Watch: Tory MP says release of Hancock's message was done for 'personal gain'
The correspondence is a name-check of the majority of high-profile names involved in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, including then prime minister Boris Johnson, then-chancellor Rishi Sunak, the majority of the cabinet at the time, as well as chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Oakeshott herself acknowledges that WhatsApp messages are not subject to freedom of information requests and those involved in the correspondence would "not necessarily have been mindful of the possibility of the correspondence ending up in the public domain" but adds: "Most of those involved were too preoccupied by the battle to save lives to worry about what anyone might think later."
The thousands of messages were shared with Oakeshott, who was co-authoring the MP's Pandemic Diaries book, and she later shared them with The Telegraph, tweeting: "The Lockdown Files @Telegraph is the biggest leak of data involving the Government since the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal, shedding new light on issues including care home deaths, lockdowns, testing, school closures and face masks. We all deserve to know."
Questions soon followed about whether Hancock should have shared the messages, which she said he used to communicate with colleagues "every day" during the pandemic.
"Throughout the pandemic, he used the messaging service WhatsApp to communicate with colleagues practically every minute of every day. Following his resignation in June 2021, he downloaded the records from his phone and shared them with various people, including me," Oakeshott wrote in The Telegraph.
While the ICO has said it is not currently looking into Hancock, allies of the former health secretary have suggested he could take legal action against Oakeshott over an alleged breach of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
A source close to Hancock told The Telegraph he was "considering all options” about how best to proceed regarding Oakeshott, adding: “She’s broken a legal NDA. Her behaviour is outrageous.”