The Covid-19 public inquiry plans to scour some of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages as it seeks to identify any.
“plainly wrongful decision-making and significant errors of judgment” by central government in the early stage of the pandemic, the lead counsel to the inquiry has said.
Opening the second stage of the statutory inquiry, examining “how central government responded to the pandemic and made the key decisions that it did”, Hugo Keith KC said it would ask whether late lockdowns cost lives and whether rule-breaking undermined public confidence.
Speaking in a preliminary hearing before witnesses are cross-examined next summer, with the UK death toll from confirmed Covid exceeding 180,000, Keith said there would be “particular scrutiny” of decisions taken by Johnson, the cabinet, senior political advisers and scientific and medical advisers from early January 2020 to the first national lockdown in late March 2020.
WhatsApp messages between the prime minister and Downing Street and other senior officials have been requested alongside cabinet minutes and notes of written and oral advice to ministers.
Lawyers for disability campaign groups called for departments to admit any deletion of documents and explain how they had preserved WhatsApp, Signal or Cabinet Office instant chat messages.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, has already published some messages from a Downing Street.
WhatsApp group used by ministers to discuss pandemic response to be investigated
WhatsApp group used by him and Johnson.
Ministers will be called to give evidence over eight weeks next summer.
Keith said the inquiry would also ask: “Was the declared policy of following the science a fair reflection of the actual decision-making?”
More than 200 scientists, including all those involved in the Sage group and others in the Independent Sage group, the latter of which was highly critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic, have been asked to give evidence.
The inquiry will ask: “How effectively was Sage utilised by central government?” Keith said it would also ask if there was “an over-reliance on epidemiological modelling or mathematical modelling”.
Imperial College London, which employs Prof Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose predictions were prominent early in the pandemic, is among the core participants in this phase of the investigation.
Keith said the inquiry would ask whether anything could have been done to reduce loss and suffering.
He described widespread “societal damage … with unmet health needs, damaged educational prospects [and] financial insecurity” and “immense” costs in human and financial terms.
Lawyers for groups representing disabled, minority ethnic groups, woman, children and frontline workers, urged the inquiry to look into how far the government accounted for their needs.