If ever confirmation was needed that we now have “Government by WhatsApp”, Matt Hancock’s leaked messages have done so in spades.

The millions of words unlocked from the former Health Secretary’s phone are a treasure trove that lay bare not just key decisions but the ministerial mood and back-and-forth with officials.

From care homes to schools, the Daily Telegraph’s “Lockdown Files” are certainly a fascinating insight into some big judgement calls made in real time during a pandemic.

Of course, the only reason the public can see any of them is down to a curious mix of vanity, disloyalty and ruthless journalistic opportunism.

The vanity was Hancock’s in believing he could hand over the entire contents of his phone (an extraordinary 100,000 messages) to an openly anti-lockdown journalist, in order to polish his own account of the Covid years.

The disloyalty was that same journalist deciding to breach their agreement. Or, as Hancock ally and former health minister Lord Bethell put it on Wednesday, Isabel Oakeshott was “not a very good friend”.

If Hancock somehow views this whole episode as an invasion of his privacy, it’s clear he invaded it himself. Yet it’s clear that many of these “private” messages should indeed be subject to scrutiny by the public. Sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant, even if that disinfectant stings.

What’s obvious from the many exchanges is just how natural and almost reflexive WhatsApp had become as a forum for policy debate, not just personal interaction. It makes Tony Blair’s “sofa government”, with its preference for informality, look like an exercise in transparency.

Given the rapid pace of events in the pandemic, the entrenchment of instant messaging into Government business is perhaps not that surprising. On Wednesday, Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman stressed that “substantive decisions” made online were communicated to the official civil service.

But he also admitted that WhatsApps and texts were “part and parcel” of ministers’ daily lives, as “an established way of communication within Government that “supplements in-person conversations”.

That’s why in many ways we should be grateful for WhatsApp, because it gives a contemporaneous record of things that are often only spoken and never written down. The big problem, however, is that many of these messages are outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

In fact, just last November the Appeal Court rejected a legal action from the Good Law Project campaign group to establish a public right to see the messages. The court ruled that the 1958 Public Records Act did not confer any duty on ministers and civil servants to store the messages that they send to each other.

The good news is that the Covid Inquiry has pretty wide reaching powers to demand documentation of all kinds and any formal policy decision has to be recorded by Whitehall.

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Guidance exists on how to manage this and applies to all forms of communications used – including that undertaken on non-Government devices. However, the Cabinet Office is currently updating its rules on the latest online systems, which will be published “in due course”.

But the real problem is that ministers and officials are allowed to delete their messages – long before any public inquiry or campaign group demands to see them.

One Cabinet minister tells me that they were advised to impose an automatic seven-day deletion on their WhatsApps. I’m told by the Cabinet Office that there is no blanket edict on how long messages should be kept but ministers are advised not to hold personal data “longer than necessary”.

What’s also curious is that some ministers have found that their WhatsApp messages to Boris Johnson have mysteriously disappeared from their private phones. Not all of their messages, just some of them, including those sent during worries about the protection of care homes.

Most important of all, the Appeal court last November ruled the use of auto-delete software was not unlawful. If the Good Law Project fail in their appeal to the Supreme Court, there will be a strong case for changing the law itself, beefing up the Freedom of Information Act to explicitly include some private messages.

Johnson used to joke to friends that “the blessed sponge of amnesia” would wipe clean his political errors, but wiping the memory of ministers’ phones would be no laughing matter at all. If disappearing messages become endemic in Whitehall, the public’s ability to scrutinise our governments will disappear too.

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