'No 10 chaos as usual': Whatsapp messages read at Covid-19 inquiry expose 'toxic' government

The second round of public hearings at the Covid inquiry will focus on the decisions that the government made in January 2020 through to last February, ITV News' Geraint Vincent reports

"Chaos", a "toxic atmosphere" and a "dysfunctional mess" is how Downing Street during the pandemic was described, as evidence began at an inquiry into the government's handling of Covid-19.

Decisions around social distancing, travel restrictions and lockdowns made by Boris Johnson's administration are being scrutinised by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry which started on Tuesday.

The government’s choices between January 2020 and February 2022 - when the final Covid restrictions in England were lifted - will be examined as part of the second module of the inquiry.

Led by Baroness Heather Hallett, it will also look at the thought process behind regional restrictions, also known as the “tier system", as well as "work from home orders, mask wearing advice and border controls."

Inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett will spend three weeks examining the decision-making in Northern Ireland Credit: James Manning/PA

The inquiry had promised to put Johnson under extra scrutiny and they began that on Tuesday.

Peter Weatherby KC for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, told the inquiry Johnson "failed to take the emerging threat seriously."

A key piece of evidence is the WhatsApp messages of Mr Johnson which should contain details relating to the ordering of three lockdowns in 2020.

Previously, it was reported they had not been handed over because he "can't remember" the password of his old iPhone.

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry also heard on Tuesday many of the messages by the then-prime minister from January 31 to June 7 2020 are “unrecoverable”.

The loss of these messages is a “remarkable and unfortunate coincidence” Mr Weatherby said.

Speaking on the first day of the second module, Mr Weatherby called for experts to examine the phone to see whether the messages could be retrieved “and whether they might have been deleted”.

“Mr Johnson claims that although he’s downloaded the phone, the WhatsApp messaging from the crucial period of the January 31 to June 7 2020 are unrecoverable,” Mr Weatherby said.

“A remarkable and unfortunate coincidence, we would say.

“We would urge the inquiry to commission experts to see why those messages can’t be retrieved and whether they may have been deleted.”

Boris Johnson wears a face mask during a visit to Milton Keynes University Hospital Credit: Adrian Dennis/PA

Some of the messages have been recovered after 24 people provided some of the messages they had recieved in several WhatsApp groups.

Lead counsel for the inquiry Hugo Keith KC said the “disharmony” between Number 10 and the Department of Health and Social Care is apparent from the WhatsApps and diary entries.

He said the messages between Mr Johnson, his adviser Dominic Cummings and others “betray a depressing picture of a toxic atmosphere” with “factional infighting” and attacks on colleagues.

“A text from Simon Case, then a senior civil servant yet to become cabinet secretary to (former health secretary) Matt Hancock on the 29th of April reads: "The cabinet office is a totally dysfunctional mess at present, so not a great place to be’.”

Sir Patrick Vallance Credit: James Manning/PA

In another note, former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “Number 10 chaos as usual.

“On Friday, the two-metre rule meeting made it abundantly clear that no one in Number 10 or the cabinet office had really read or taken time to understand the science advice on two metres. Quite extraordinary.”

Sir Patrick also wrote in his diary about something said by the cabinet secretary at the time: “He says Number 10 is at war with itself. Carrie faction with Gove and another with spads downstairs.

"The PM is caught in the middle. He, the cabinet secretary, has spoken to all his predecessors…and no one has seen anything like it.”

Meanwhile, Anthony Metzer KC, speaking on behalf of Long Covid Kids, Long Covid SOS and Long Covid Support, told the inquiry that Mr Johnson initially “denied the truth of the suffering” of long Covid patients.

It comes after it was reported that Rishi Sunak told the inquiry he is unable to provide WhatsApp messages from his time as Chancellor during the pandemic because he failed to back them up.

The prime minister wrote in his witness statement that he does “not have access” to the messages because he changed his phone several times, The Guardian reported.

Rishi Sunak at the Tory Party Conference. Credit: PA

'Silenced' families have their voices heard

Baroness Hallet vowed families who lost loved ones during the pandemic will not be ignored, as the inquiry opened at Dorland House, London.

The former Court of Appeal judge told the hearing that Tuesday marked “another important milestone” for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

“The focus of module two will be on governance and key decision-making at a high level in the United Kingdom during the time when the pandemic was at its worst, and when it caused so much suffering,” she said.

“Some of those who suffered, and who continue to suffer, maintained a dignified presence outside the hearing centre this morning to remind us of why we are all here."

The relatives, many of whom were holding portraits of their deceased loved ones, stood beside a banner which read “Stop silencing the bereaved”.

Their signs bore the laughing faces of current and former government ministers and senior officials including Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, David Cameron, Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Cummings.

Lorelei King, whose husband died during the pandemic. Credit: PA

Lorelei King, 69, said she was making a stand on behalf of her actor husband Vincent Marzello, 72, who died in March 2020.

She said: “I am here to ensure the inquiry does its job properly and I am here to learn about what happened during this particularly crucial time, especially the early part of the pandemic when my husband died.

“I have some concerns. One of my wishes for this inquiry is that there is sufficient evidence.

“I hope the inquiry has access to evidence it needs which includes evidence from the bereaved. They have taken impact statements but we have much more to provide. Many of us were eye witnesses to what went on during that time.

“I think it is a shame to squander what we have to offer.”

Baroness Hale insisted their views are not being ignored, adding: “I understand their concerns, however we simply do not have time to call more witnesses."

What else happened at the inquiry on Tuesday?

The inquiry then heard video testimonies of families who lost loved ones or whose children have suffered long-term harm from Covid.

Later on Tuesday morning, lead counsel for the inquiry Hugo Keith KC said the speed with which the government acted in the early months of 2020 was of “central importance to the inquiry”.

Some have argued that had Westminster acted quicker, it might not have been forced into making the “far-reaching, extraordinary decisions” it later did, he said.

He told how Mr Johnson received a briefing from Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty on February 3, 2020.

“Chris Whitty expresses the view that if Covid-19 spreads internationally and becomes a pandemic, there was a reasonable chance there will be between 100,000 and 300,000 deaths in the United Kingdom,” he said.

Who will give evidence at the inquiry and when?

Ministers and other government officials are expected to give evidence during the second module of the inquiry over the coming days, titled “core UK decision-making and political governance”.

Other witnesses will include expert advisers, including members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage); civil servants and health officials from the NHS, the Department of Health and Social Care and the now defunct Public Health England.

On Wednesday afternoon, it is expected the inquiry will hear from Joanna Goodman of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, Dr Alan Wightman of the Scottish Covid Bereaved, and Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru.

Catriona Myles of the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, Professor James Nazroo, Professor Philip Banfield of the British Medical Association, and Caroline Abrahams of Age UK will give evidence on Thursday.

On Friday the inquiry will hear from Professor David Taylor-Robinson, former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, Kate Bell of the Trades Union Congress, Ade Adeyemi of the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations, Dr Claire Wenham, and Rebecca Goshawk of Solace Women’s Aid.

Public hearings will take place across 35 days between October 3 and December 14.

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