Vaughan Gething denies 'obnoxious' claim he committed perjury at Covid inquiry

Vaughan Gething on his feet in the Senedd
-Credit: (Image: Senedd TV)

Welsh First Minister Vaughan Gething has denied he lied to the Covid inquiry and called an accusation he had committed perjury during his evidence "obnoxious". Mr Gething faced more questions about his judgement in the Senedd after a leaked phone grpup chat message from during the pandemic showed he said: "I’m deleting the messages in this group. They can be captured in an FOI [Freedom of Information request]" during the pandemic.

The message, sent in a chain of iMessages, involved 10 people whose names have been redacted. Mr Gething told the Senedd during First Minister's Questions on Tuesday he said he was trying to avoid embarrassment to his colleagues.

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The thread, involving 10 unnamed people, was carried on via iMessage and referenced a Labour group meeting taking place at 4pm on August 17. The other contributors' names are not being made public and personal information is being redacted by the Welsh Government. "The message released today is a message without the context of the discussion. I have asked for a screenshot in its full form to be shared with the inquiry so the context can be seen," Mr Gething said.

He was asked about deleting messages because he could be forced to release them at a later date, which is an offence under the Freedom of Information Act. Mr Gething admitted he wrote the message but denied it would be a breach of the law or his requirements of appearing at the public inquiry.

"I think that's a misreading of the requirements of the act. In my witness statement to the public inquiry I set out in some detail, honestly and fully, about how messages have been retained and stored to ensure that a proper record of all choices made by me and other ministers have been captured for the inquiry," Mr Gething said. He said he has asked for the whole redacted screenshot to be shared with the inquiry.

Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth said: "Can the FIrst Minister understand why today people are asking if he committed perjury under oath?" Mr Gething said that was an "extraordinary" claim which was "absent of context or fact or what was happening at the time". He said it was "essentially an appeal" to his colleagues about what they were going to say. "I reject completely the suggestion I have not been honest with the Covid inquiry. It matters to me that inquiry has a full record of what we did and why... I'd ask the member to think again about his accusation I've committed perjury. That is a serious matter and not one I think he should lightly make."

Mr ap Iorwerth said the government was "limping from one crisis to the next". He added: "The hole just keeps getting deeper. The donations were bad enough but this is on a whole new level. 'No new decisions during the pandemic were being taken via informal methods' – that's what we were told.

"That's what we were told but what are we to think here? Informal messages here between ministers about a choice being made, attempts to dodge FOIs..."

The Freedom of Information Act provides public access to information held by public authorities, including government departments, who are obliged to publish certain information about their activities if requested to do so by members of the public. When he gave evidence to the Covid inquiry Mr Gething said he was not able to provide copies of any messages from his Senedd-issued phone because they had been deleted after an upgrade by the Senedd's IT team.

"The conversation is entirely about a Labour party group meeting, and not about decision-making to do with the pandemic, but it's about comments colleagues made to and about each other. It's about ensuring we don't provide things that are potentially embarrassing but not those things that affect any information about decision-making in the pandemic," said Mr Gething of the message chain.

The Welsh Government has declined to comment on the leaked message but there are calls for Mr Gething to be recalled to the Covid inquiry. A spokesperson for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry said in response: "These reports have been brought to the attention of the inquiry this morning. The inquiry is considering the information available and whether it is necessary to seek further evidence from Mr Gething."

During the inquiry's spell in Wales Mr Gething said said that between January 2020 and May 2022 he had two Welsh Government mobile phones, which did not have WhatsApp, and two Senedd mobile phones, which did. The first Senedd phone was given to him in January 2020 and handed back in March 2022. He admitted using that phone to text and WhatsApp other ministers, officials, and special advisers and was part of a ministerial WhatsApp group. You can catch up on the evidence he gave to the inquiry here.

He told the inquiry during his evidence on March 12 this year: "You’ll have seen there was a ministerial WhatsApp group and within that there were incidental messages around: 'Have a look at what we’re doing', 'This is what I think we’re going to need to do', 'check your government device', essentially."

He was part of a ministerial group involving then-First Minister Mark Drakeford and another called "schools and Covid" including then-education minister Kirsty Williams and climate change minister Julie James. He also had a separate group with Kirsty Williams.

But he admitted having no access to "any of the texts or WhatsApp messages that you sent during your time as minister for health and social services". He said all messages from his first Senedd phone were transferred to a second one which he was given July 2021 onwards but when it was taken for maintenance in July 2022 he lost all the messages.

"When I moved from my first Senedd mobile to my second one I did actually have access to all the messages on my new Senedd phone. What then happened was... that, following a security rebuild, all of the WhatsApp messages were wiped. That includes all my personal ones as well, things that had nothing to do with the government. So messages with my family for example. So everything went," he said, adding: "I would much prefer it if I’d been able to so you could have seen what was in them and what was not in them."

Mr Gething has been under pressure since becoming First Minister in March over the size of donations made to his leadership campaign.