Sunak says he is ‘expansively’ helping Covid-19 inquiry after WhatsApp claims

Rishi Sunak has insisted he is “expansively” helping the UK Covid-19 Inquiry after it was claimed he is unable to provide WhatsApp messages because he failed to back them up.

The Prime Minister wrote in his witness statement to the inquiry that he does “not have access” to the messages from when he was chancellor because he changed his phone several times, the Guardian reported.

It comes as the second stage of the inquiry got under way on Tuesday. It will examine the key decisions made by the Government between January 2020 and February 2022.

Asked by the BBC at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester whether it was true he no longer had the WhatsApp messages, Mr Sunak refused to be drawn, saying: “What I can tell you because obviously this is a legal process which is going on, is that I’m helping the Covid inquiry fully and very, very expansively with everything.”

Asked again about the messages, he replied: “I think as people will know that this is the legal inquiry, there’s a full process, I submit a lot of different evidence and documentation. I will be interviewed, all of that will be transparent and public.

“And of course I’m helping with all of that, as people would expect. We want to learn the lessons from Covid.”

Lead counsel for the inquiry Hugo Keith KC told the hearing on Tuesday the inquiry had received messages from more than 250 WhatsApp groups from “24 custodians”.

He said this was in addition to thousands of pages of one-to one WhatsApp threads.

“I should say that that material includes copies of WhatsApp groups to which Rishi Sunak MP was a participant,” he said.

“We also have multiple one-to-one threads of WhatsApps with him.”

Conservative Party Conference 2023
Rishi Sunak was chancellor at the start of the Covid pandemic (Peter Byrne/PA)

He also said the inquiry has material extracted from an old phone belong to former prime minister Boris Johnson.

Mr Keith said, however, it was “right to say, we’ve not received everyone’s WhatsApp texts or iMessages”.

He added: “A lot were not retained and were got rid of in accordance with what their owners believed was Government policy, long before the inquiry came calling.

“Some were apparently deleted accidentally, and we’ll be asking why that happened.

“However, in light of the very large number of messages and diary entries that we have received, we have, we believe, a very good picture of what happened.”

Mr Keith said the “disharmony” between Number 10 and the Department of Health and Social Care is apparent from the WhatsApps and diary entries.

He said the messages between Mr Johnson, his adviser Dominic Cummings and others “betray a depressing picture of a toxic atmosphere” with “factional infighting” and attacks on colleagues.

“A text from Simon Case, then a senior civil servant yet to become cabinet secretary to (former health secretary) Matt Hancock on the 29th of April reads: ‘The Cabinet Office is a totally dysfunctional mess at present, so not a great place to be’.”

Mr Keith also quoted from the diary of former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, in which he said one Cabinet Office document had been made up of “cherry-picked” guidance.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance wrote a diary (James Manning/PA)

In another note, Sir Patrick said: “Number 10 chaos as usual.

“On Friday, the two-metre rule meeting made it abundantly clear that no one in Number 10 or the Cabinet Office had really read or taken time to understand the science advice on two metres. Quite extraordinary.”

Sir Patrick also wrote in his diary about something said by the Cabinet Secretary at the time: “He says Number 10 is at war with itself. Carrie faction with Gove and another with spads downstairs. The PM is caught in the middle. He, the Cabinet Secretary, has spoken to all his predecessors…and no one has seen anything like it.”

Mr Keith further said the diaries of Sir Patrick speak of the Sage committee, the chief medical officer and himself “being used as human shields” by ministers.

Witnesses also complained about Mr Johnson’s inconsistent behaviour, with one saying he was “all over the place”.

Sir Patrick wrote: “As another person said, it’s so inconsistent. It’s like bipolar decision-making.”

Mr Keith added: “Sir Patrick’s diary contains entries such as ‘this flip-flopping is impossible. One minute do more. Next do nothing. He doesn’t seem to push actions or resolutions’.”

In July 2020 when restrictions were lifted, Sir Patrick said “the ridiculous flip-flopping is getting worse” and “the CMO (Sir Chris Whitty) and I are both worried about the extreme inconsistency from the Prime Minister, lurching from open everything to panic.”

Earlier, inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett said families who had lost loved ones during the pandemic will not be ignored as the inquiry progresses.

The former Court of Appeal judge, who led the inquests into the July 7 London bombings, told the hearing: “The focus of module two will be on governance and key decision-making at a high level in the United Kingdom during the time when the pandemic was at its worst, and when it caused so much suffering.

“Some of those who suffered, and who continue to suffer, maintained a dignified presence outside the hearing centre this morning to remind us of why we are all here.

“We will be hearing from some of them during the course of this module.”

Lady Hallett said the inquiry would hear from advisers, experts, scientists, politicians and civil servants but also representatives of bereaved families.

They would be followed by experts on ethnicity, later life, children, young people, frontline and key workers, sex and gender, disabled people, LGBT+ and long Covid.

She added: “Their evidence will enable us to put the decision-making into context and to help us establish the extent to which decision makers took into account the interests of such groups and the impact on them when making their decisions.”

Lady Hallett acknowledged calls for more bereaved people to be brought in as witnesses but said there was not enough time to hear more.

Baroness Heather Hallett
Baroness Heather Hallett (Nick Ansell/PA)

“The need for me to reach conclusions and make recommendations to reduce suffering in the future when the next pandemic hits the UK is pressing,” she said.

“I say when the next pandemic hits the UK, because the evidence in module one suggested it is not if another pandemic will hit us, but when.”

Lady Hallett added: “The inquiry is not ignoring the bereaved or any other group who suffered – far from it.”