All government ministers who were involved in Britain’s response to the Covid pandemic will be required to hand over their private Whatsapp messages to the UK’s Covid public inquiry, the chair of the independent investigation has announced.
The decision was announced on Tuesday by Baroness Heather Hallett – who said that all key government ministers and advisors would be asked to release their private communications.
It comes in the aftermath of The Lockdown Files at the start of March, when the UK’s Daily Telegraph obtained more than 100,000 Whatsapp messages former Health Secretary Matt Hancock sent concerning Covid policy.
Jaws drops after the investigation showed a number of top politicians and advisors engaged in what was dubbed ‘Project Fear’ in which those behind public policy spoke about using “guilt” and “fear” to force people to comply with Covid lockdowns enacted by the UK government.
Some of the most extraordinary exchanges included Mr Hancock telling his advisor, after the more contagious Alpha variant started spreading: “We can frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain”, and another cabinet member telling Hancock that “the fear/guilt factor” was “crucial” to keep people locked down.
Baroness Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge, is the Chair of the independent public inquiry, set up to examine the UK’s response and impact of the Covid pandemic, and to learn lessons for the future. Because the inquiry was established under the Inquiries Act (2005), as Chair, she has the power to compel the production of documents and call witnesses to give evidence on oath. While the public enquiry into the UK’s response was announced two years ago, full public hearings have yet to begin.
The former judge has now made clear her intention to leave no stone unturned in relation to exchanges on the messaging app.
In response to concerns raised by a KC representing families who lost family members to Covid in Scotland, she said:
“What I can do is assure the bereaved that this inquiry is in the process of obtaining all relevant WhatsApp messages from all relevant groups, not just those from Mr Hancock, and therefore this inquiry will conduct a full and thorough investigation into and analysis of what the messages mean for the public of the United Kingdom.”
A further preliminary hearing into the first module of the Covid inquiry will take place on Tuesday – while The Telegraph reports that the bill for the public inquiry already sits at £85 million, with no deadline for the publication of any findings as of yet.
Mr Hancock has already handed over all relevant messages and emails to the public inquiry, and has insisted that it is the proper forum to look at actions during the pandemic.
The inquiry, which will cover Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, parallels a separate public inquiry taking place in Scotland, sparking concern that the entire process could take years.
Baroness Hallett’s pledge to delve into millions of private Whatsapp messages will add to her team’s workload and create further delays. As The Telegraph reports, Mr Hancock’s Whatsapp exchanges alone amounted to over 2.3 million words, and a team of journalists needed two months to analyse the texts.
PUSH FOR AN IRISH COVID INQUIRY
In contrast, there has been no formal announcement or launch of a public inquiry into the Irish Government’s handling of the Covid crisis, despite public calls to examine how Covid was handled here.
Meath West TD and leader of Aontú, Peadar Tóibín TD has been among those to call for an inquiry. Speaking in February, he said that it was “beyond time” the Government carried out the inquiry.
In March, Aontú reiterated calls for a full investigation of the Government’s handlin of Covid, after information given to Mr Tóibín by the HSE revealed that over 40% of Covid deaths in Ireland were linked to nursing homes or hospital outbreaks.
“Shockingly we are talking about the deaths of nearly 3,500 people.These people contracted Covid either in a Nursing Home, a hospital or a Care home,” he said.
“Incredibly the people who were most vulnerable were most exposed. It is phenomenal to think that throughout Covid, the government were restricting people to 2km from their home and preventing people from going to funerals, school or work, when in reality the most dangerous place you could be was in a nursing home or hospital, two locations run or regulated by the state,” the TD told the media in March.
In response to Mr Tóibín’s calls for action, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cautioned the idea of an inquiry into the State’s Covid response – saying it would “take time”. The Taoiseach, responding in march, told Mr Tóibín that he was “determined” to have an inquiry up and running in 2023, “ideally by the middle of the year”.
He said that while such an investigation was important, it shouldn’t start until the pandemic has come to an end – adding that such an investigation should not be about pointing figures or placing blame on people.
“It’s going to be about getting to the truths, understanding what happened. What we did well, what we did badly, what could have been done better, because we can’t assume that this is going to be the last big pandemic in our lifetime,” he said.