The stakes are high, as the Government’s clash with the Covid inquiry heads for a
showdown in court.
This inquiry exists to learn the lessons from Britain’s greatest national emergency since the Second World War. Lives may be saved or lost in the future.
How can WhatsApp messages cause such a legal inferno? Well, these ones – sent between 40 ministers, officials and scientific advisers, among them Boris Johnson – are vital because they are contemporaneous notes. They offer a real-time account of the UK’s response to a pandemic. They will provide uncooked insights that are impossible to find in Whitehall briefing documents, where inconsistencies and inconvenient context are steam-rollered from the page.
Yes, these WhatsApps may shed unflattering light on Britain’s reaction to the virus. So be it. That is the job of inquiries – and this one will be fair and measured.
Baroness Hallett, the retired judge leading proceedings, is best placed to decide which messages are relevant – not civil servants trying to protect the reputation of current ministers and their predecessors.
Lady Hallett has already said that she will check whether senior figures in government took their eyes off the ball, or as she put it, whether “a minister dealt with Covid-related issues inadequately because he or she was focusing (perhaps inappropriately) on other issues”. To do that she needs basic access to the messages.
She and the Covid inquiry cannot do their work if the Cabinet Office wields a censor’s pen.