Lost Whatsapp messages 'real embarrassment', ex-health minister tells Covid Inquiry

  • ITV Wales' health reporter Katie Fenton has the latest from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Cardiff.

Wales' health minister during the Covid-19 pandemic has branded his lost pandemic WhatsApp messages a “real embarrassment”.

Vaughan Gething has defended his use of mobile phone messages at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry which is being held in Cardiff this week.

Gething is the first of several high-profile Welsh Government ministers during the pandemic who will be appearing at the inquiry.

He is in the middle of a leadership election campaign, with his opponent Jeremy Miles also due to appear at the Inquiry later this week.

Vaughan Gething previously served as the Minister for Health and Social Services from 2016 to 2021. Credit: PA Images

The man they are vying to replace, First Minister Mark Drakeford, will also give evidence to the Inquiry this week as well as Eluned Morgan - Wales' current health minister.

Tom Poole KC, the lead counsel for the inquiry, started Monday’s hearing by asking Gething about his use of WhatsApp messaging and why many were erased.

Gething said: “It is a matter of real embarrassment, because if I’d been able to recover those messages then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

He blamed a “security rebuild” for the messages' deletion and said he had spoken with the IT team at the Senedd on multiple occasions to attempt to get them back.

Gething insisted that the messages were used in place of “conversations you have in the corridor” which were no longer possible during the pandemic and not for decision-making or to “circumvent processes within the government.”

Gething accepted he should not have used the messages in the way he did.

He said: “I think we need to have a review going forward about what we do need to capture in record keeping and what is incidental.

“I think when you look at the records that are available, they do reflect the way in which we made choices and the reasons for them.

“I certainly do regret the fact that all those messages aren’t available to you because you could see them and satisfy yourself that all of the information there is consistent with all the information in the records you do have in front of you.”

  • The Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group gave their reaction to Vaughan Gething's evidence at a press conference outside of the inquiry.

Gething was also questioned about whether the Welsh Government 'abdicated responsibility' over the decision to cancel a rugby match in March 2020, at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry which is being held in Cardiff this week.

The former health minister insisted "scientific advice at the time was there was no reason to cancel the game", which the WRU themselves cancelled.

"I do recall them saying that they thought it would be sensible for the match not to go ahead and I told them about the advice that we'd had and that were going through with SAGE advice” he said.

But he did admit that "of all the awkward choices" the Welsh Government had to make, "that is definitely one that jars."

The UK Covid Inquiry continues to shine a light on decision-making in Welsh Government and, as with the UK and Scottish Governments, not always favourably.

In a day of evidence, the former Health Minister Vaughan Gething said that decisions over lockdowns here in Wales were made by gathering evidence, considering papers and proposals which were then discussed by the cabinet before a final sign-off and the ultimate decision made by the First Minister.

But getting to those decisions is often messy as was revealed when the focus turned to the use of WhatsApp, something that’s been a source of embarrassment for and criticism of politicians, from the former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in particular the deleting of messages, or switching on of the “disappearing messages” function.

Jane Runeckles was sworn in at the inquiry in Cardiff Credit: Covid Inquiry

Gething set out his defence of using the app to communicate, saying that it had become “a substitute for conversations you have in a corridor because you couldn’t have corridor conversations because of the extraordinary measures we had to take.”

And he said that most of that conversation was about “blowing off steam and being supportive” rather than any formal decision-making. References to decisions, he said, amounted to highlighting that a decision had been made and pointing others in the groups to those decisions in other, more formal parts of the government system.

Even so, he said it was now pretty clear that the use of communication will change, saying that “ I think you’ll find that informal messaging as it was used in the pandemic won’t take place in the future.”

For Vaughan Gething, it’s a day of scrutiny on his performance as a senior minister which comes at a time when he hopes he could be about to become First Minister.

Education Minister Jeremy Miles is competing with Economy Minister Vaughan Gething to be the next First Minister. Credit: PA

The fact that he’s in the middle of a leadership contest was acknowledged by the Inquiry Chair, Baroness Heather Hallett when she joked that “this isn’t the best week for you to appear.”

He’s already faced criticism for admitting in previous evidence to the Inquiry that he hadn’t read all of a key preparedness document ahead of the covid pandemic, something he returned to today, insisting that he had read “every single briefing.”

His rival for the Welsh Labour leadership, Jeremy Miles will give evidence tomorrow and can expect to face as intense questioning but will only be in front of the inquiry for part of the day.

It may not have much impact on the outcome of the leadership election anyway. Voting closes in a matter of days and it’s widely assumed that most eligible members of Labour and its affiliate organisation already cast their votes weeks ago.

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