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 over eight weeks next summer, with the UK death toll from confirmed Covid exceeding 180,000, Keith said there would be “particular scrutiny” of decisions taken by the prime minister, the cabinet, senior political advisers and scientific and medical advisers from early January 2020 to the first national lockdown in late March.
WhatsApp messages between Johnson 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 to any deletion of documents and explain how they have 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 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 about the effectiveness of the response.
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.
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Keith said the inquiry’s job would be to ask whether anything could have been done to reduce loss and suffering caused by “death and illness on an unprecedented scale”. 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 people, ethnic minority groups, woman, children and frontline workers urged the inquiry to investigate how far the government accounted for their needs. Liz Davies KC, representing organisations that help victims of domestic abuse, said the inquiry must investigate whether government decisions were backed by equalities impact assessments. Philip Dayle, representing the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations, called for “institutional and structural racism” to be considered.
The inquiry is pressing ahead with a “listening exercise” to gather and summarise testimonies from people affected by the pandemic, despite opposition from bereaved groups who want their testimonies to be taken as evidence. The inquiry has issued a £970,000 contract to the polling firm Ipsos to carry out the exercise and a £800,000 contract to the communications company M&C Saatchi to inform the public how to take part. The inquiry chair, Lady Hallett, stressed that some personal testimonies would also be heard in evidence where they relate to “systemic failings”.
The inquiry is wrestling with how to prevent the sprawl of an already huge exercise that will take several years. The Cabinet Office has said it has so many potentially relevant documents that its material alone would take three years to review. 39 groups of core participants were represented at the preliminary module 2 hearing, including three long Covid support groups, disability rights groups, children’s rights groups and bereaved families’ groups representing the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The health system was represented by NHS England, the British Medical Association and social care operators.
Government bodies ranged from the Department of Health and Social Care to the office of England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments.
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