Rishi Sunak: Did the Prime Minister ever hand his WhatsApp messages over to the Covid inquiry?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is making his first appearance before the UK's Covid inquiry which requires access to WhatsApp messages. But Sunak seemed unable to provide his…

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Covid Inquiry WhatsApp messages
© Samir Hussein / GETTYIMAGES
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Covid Inquiry WhatsApp messages

The Prime Minister is set to face a grilling in the next stage of the Covid inquiry today, on Monday 11 December. Last week former PM Boris Johnson was questioned, and this is the first time that the current PM will appear.

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In summer 2023, it became clear that Rishi Sunak failed to deliver WhatsApp messages to the Covid inquiry, and his excuse seemed a little convenient. The inquiry is being led by Baroness Heather Hallett and will investigate how the government dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The hearings will examine the decision to delay lockdown, the attitude to testing and the approach to care homes. The whole process is expected to last until 2025 and is divided into several stages. People who were working for the government during this time were to hand in WhatsApp messages as proof of discussions had around the pandemic. Yet, Rishi Sunak seemed to be unable to comply.

Here’s what he used as an excuse.

Sunak changed his phone ‘a number of times’

The current Prime Minister was Chancellor when important conversations regarding Covid-19 were being had within the government. Several key topics such as the lockdown, mask mandates, and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme were discussed during this period and final decisions were authorised.

Parts of these discussions, strangely, were had over WhatsApp - so recovering messages from this time is crucial to the inquiry. However, Rishi Sunak claimed he was unable to provide these messages as he changed phone ‘a number of times’ since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020.

This does seem odd, given that changing your phone does not necessarily mean changing your SIM card or indeed your number… and then there’s the question of backing-up material.

Reactions to Rishi Sunak's excuse

As Sunak faced criticism for this weak excuse. In a witness statement seen by the Gaurdian he said:

Having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years, I don't have access to WhatsApp messages I sent or received during the relevant time, and neither were the messages backed up.

He explained that his ‘expectation’ was that officials on the WhatsApp groups would have ‘taken steps to ensure’ the preservation of any messages that needed to be kept on record.

Matt Fowler, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, commented at the time:

If Johnson and Sunak don’t provide the inquiry with the messages it has asked for, they need to face the full force of the law.
The lengths they are going to to cover up these WhatsApps … are absolutely obscene. If half as much effort was put into learning from the mishandling of the pandemic as has been put into hiding critical evidence from the inquiry, we would be in a better position when the next pandemic comes.

Johnson has since handed in some of his WhatsApp data, but claims to be unable to retrieve message from the first half of 2020 - key dates from the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Sunak is sticking to his guns and won't give anything away. He is sure to be grilled on this subject over the course of today's inquiry.

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Sources used:

Mirror: Rishi Sunak fails to hand pandemic WhatsApp messages to Covid Inquiry

Sky News: HS2 explained: What is the route now and why is the Manchester leg being axed?

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