PM’s Whitehall chief ‘cannot recall’ why he turned on disappearing WhatsApps during pandemic

The ongoing public inquiry this week heard evidence from the former principal private secretary to prime minister Boris Johnson, who claimed he did not remember the ‘rationale’ for auto-deleting messages

One of the prime minister’s top Whitehall officials during government’s response to the coronavirus crisis has told the Covid Inquiry that he could “not recall” why he had turned on a function to make an important WhatsApp group’s messages disappear.

On Monday the latest stage of the inquiry heard that Martin Reynolds, who served as principal private secretary to then prime minister Boris Johnson from October 2019 to March 2022, had turned on a “disappearing message function” on the WhatsApp group called “PM Updates” on 15 April 2021 – only a month before it was announced that a public inquiry examining the UK’s response to the pandemic was going to take place.

Asked why he had turned on the disappearing message function, Reynolds said he could not recall the specific reason why.

“The rationale for doing this is unclear to me,” he said. “I can speculate… This WhatsApp group was very different to any other group because it was funnelling information from the prime minister. That flow of information, of updating him on developments, was recorded properly on our systems.”

Reynolds claimed that most of the information on this group was recorded separately in an informal manner via email, and that the group was merely a way to “funnel” information to Johnson in a succinct way.

The former senior civil servant admitted it was his action that had prevented the inquiry being unable to access messages from this group after this time.  He told the inquiry he may have been worried about colleagues screenshotting and leaking them, as a potential explanation as to why he decided to make messages disappear.

Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, quoted a message sent to Reynolds by cabinet secretary Simon Case in December 2021, which read: “PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry – but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year.”

According to Case’s statement to the inquiry, No.10 published a policy on WhatsApp messages in March 2021. Asked if he recalled the policy being established, he said he did not, adding: “I would have been aware of the policy statement, I’m sure, but I cannot remember the substance.”

“I imagine our policy on WhatsApps, certainly throughout this period, was… the same as our policy on other material which was around retention of WhatsApp for messages which are important for the decision making process, but not the ephemeral side of things.”

Keith pressed Reynolds on the distinction between “ephemeral” WhatsApps and those he regarded to be “important for the decision making process”.

He said there had been a huge increase in the number of WhatsApp messages being sent early in the pandemic “reflecting the shift to remote working and the pace of some of the activities going on with people in different locations”.

“A lot of the WhatsApps you are seeing, it seems to me, are exchanges which people could have been doing previously by telephone, or in corridors, or things like that. They’re now just recorded in WhatsApp but are ephemeral in nature,” he said.

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“In the same way as if there was a conversation about a policy matter before people go into a substantive discussion in the corridor, where someone might say something to me or to others, we’re not necessarily recording all of that because it’s ephemeral in nature, where the decision takes place and the process leading to that decision are recorded in a normal way.”

Pressed further, Reynolds said the messages were “relevant to the Covid inquiry”, but suggested civil servants’ obligation to record these exchanges formally was “a bit different” than for other materials.

In an extended line of questioning, Reynolds defended his view that the “vast majority” of WhatsApp messages being exchanged were “ephemeral in nature”.

“In any decision, there is all sorts of ephemeral discussions around a policy. Not all of those discussions are recorded in full even in the main meetings themselves,” he said.

Apparently unsatisfied with this answer, Keith responded: “But, Mr Reynolds, they’re all relevant, are they not, to the state of mind of the sender, and indirectly, the recipient? They are all relevant to the debate about Covid. And the decisions which were then being taken, are they not?”

Reynolds said he agreed and had saved all of his messages – aside from those that had been auto-deleted – for that reason.

Earlier this year – and for the first time in a decade – government updated its rules on the use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp and private email accounts by ministers and officials. The updated guidelines now clearly prohibit the use of non-corporate communications channels for sharing anything above government’s lowest level of security classification.

Even in these cases, ministers and civil servants that use mobile apps or webmail are advised that they must “be prepared to defend your choices”.

‘Routinely delete’
Separately, first minister Humza Yousaf has said it was Scottish Government policy to “routinely delete” WhatsApp messages at the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

But, responding to journalists on Monday, Yousaf also said he had retained his own messages and he “fully intends to hand them over” to the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries.

The Sunday Mail has reported that the current first minister’s predecessor Nicola Sturgeon had not retained key communications, alongside around 70 other Scottish Government figures. The paper said WhatsApp messages sent by Sturgeon were manually deleted from her phone.

Yousaf said: “I’m confident that the former first minister can speak for herself in terms of what she has kept, what she’s retained and what she hasn’t done, and the rationale for that. Remember, of course, we had a social media messaging policy which actually required us to routinely delete WhatsApp messages and that was the policy at the time. The ‘do not destroy’ notice is one that I expect everybody to comply with, Scottish Government ministers, former ministers, and of course government officials and clinical directors and clinical advisers. That is my expectation.”

Versions of this story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publications PoliticsHome, Holyrood and Civil Service World

PublicTechnology staff

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