United Kingdom: the opening of a public inquiry points to the vagueness in the management of the Covid crisis

In the United Kingdom, it is in about ten days that the hearings of the public inquiry on the management of the Covid crisis will begin. The country had been particularly affected in the first year of the pandemic, then led by Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson during a press conference at 10 Downing Street during the Covid crisis, December 19, 2020. REUTERS - TOBY MELVILLE

Text by: Emeline Vin Follow


Read more

With our correspondent in London,

Boris Johnson resigned last year. Today, Rishi Sunak heads the government. And so, the British executive has begun a legal tug-of-war with the team in charge of this public inquiry.

Baroness Hallett, who is leading this public inquiry, is demanding access to all government correspondence from the time of the first lockdown. All the messages exchanged by ministers and advisers, their notebooks, their agendas... Only, during the pandemic and since, many of the conversations – and decisions! – have happened on WhatsApp, the instant messaging application, much simpler in the era of widespread teleworking.

► Read also: "Partygate" in the United Kingdom: "leadership mistakes" in Downing Street

The government therefore refuses to transmit everything en bloc. The argument is that most of the messages were unrelated to Covid and therefore Lady Hallett does not have to consult them. The latter believes that it is up to her to judge. The deadline for transmitting the documents having passed, it is now the justice that will decide.

It should be noted, however, that Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister, sent boxes of notebooks, agendas, and some messages. But messages from the first lockdown are not included, as his phone would have been hacked.

Differences between Boris Johnson and his former ministers

Boris Johnson, for his part, opposes his former colleagues and collaborators. This does not give a very good impression of the government of the day. Last week, several newspapers accused the government of "vast cover-up", of wanting to hide what really happened during the lockdowns. As a reminder, Covid has caused more than 200,000 deaths in the United Kingdom.

For the executive, the question is not about the content of the documents – but above all about the impact of the decision. He does not want to set a precedent. For now, most archives are sealed for several decades, except in a few targeted cases, such as public inquiries.

As on this case, the line between the personal and the professional is much more blurred, since everything went through a single application, the fear of Downing Street is that Baroness Hallett discovers sensitive, embarrassing or just private information on ministers and officials. And that ultimately, this information is made public.

Opposition points to "governance by WhatsApp"

It is clear that third-party applications - of which WhatsApp is just one example - are taking up more and more space in decision-making. The question arises of transparency and the right to information for citizens. How do I archive these official conversations? It is still a legal vacuum. There are also, of course, all the issues related to the security and durability of data shared by third-party applications. And then the very mode of decision-making: everything goes much faster on the Internet, but are there the right safeguards? The opposition here criticizes "governance by WhatsApp".

In March, new instructions were issued: ministers, civil servants, staff must "avoid" using unofficial communication channels "as much as possible". There is no ban, and above all, still no official status for these communications. This public inquiry is to last three years.

► Read also: Covid-19 in the United Kingdom: "A considerable tension" on the health system, acknowledges Boris Johnson

Newsletter Receive all the international news directly in your mailbox

I subscribe

Follow all the international news by downloading the RFI application

Read on on the same topics:

  • United Kingdom
  • Boris Johnson
  • Coronavirus