Freshly issued government guidance sets out new responsibilities for ministers and senior officials to ensure that any calls made in the process of messaging conversations must now be formally recorded
Decisions made by officials and ministers via WhatsApp must be officially recorded, the Cabinet Office has said, following intense scrutiny of the use of the messaging app brought about by the Covid Inquiry.
Fresh guidance published last week instructs ministerial private offices, as well as the offices of permanent secretaries, to transfer to the official record decisions “arising from telephone or online meetings or via non-corporate communication channels, such as WhatsApp”.
However, it does not go as far as to say entire WhatsApp messages must go on the record.
The guidance comes after the Covid Inquiry exposed potentially major gaps in record keeping, including failures by former and current prime ministers Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to produce some of the WhatsApp messages they were asked to hand over to the inquiry.
It also comes eight months after the Cabinet Office updated cross-government guidance on the use of non-corporate communications channels (NCCCs) for the first time in a decade, setting out clearer guidance on the use of private email and messaging services.
The guidance effectively banned the use of NCCCs, including WhatsApp, for sharing secret or top secret information. It also instructed civil servants to “exercise professional judgement appropriate to your circumstances… use NCCCs with care and be prepared to explain and defend your choices”.
The latest updated guidance on official record-keeping replaces a previous iteration from 2009 and says officials “should exercise judgement but should aim for an intelligible record of their ministers’ time in office”. It also includes instructions on how to record information shared via meetings, formal correspondence, submissions and other means.
Sunak, who was chancellor at the height of the Covid pandemic, told the Covid Inquiry he did “not have access” to WhatsApp messages he had sent or received at the time, and had not backed them up.
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He appeared to blame civil servants for the omission, writing in a witness statement: “My expectation would be that if the officials on those groups had considered that any information being communicated by WhatsApp message needed to be preserved to form part of the official HMT record, then those officials would have taken steps to ensure that happened.”
Johnson was, meanwhile, unable to produce around 5,000 WhatsApp messages from the early weeks of the pandemic.
The former PM told the inquiry that it had received “all the relevant Whatsapps”, and that he had not “removed any Whatsapps from my phone”, but that some were missing as a result of the software “somehow automatically erasing” them.
There was also significant controversy when it emerged that Johnson’s former principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had turned on a vanishing-messages function in a WhatsApp group that included the then-PM and a number of his most senior advisers just weeks before the inquiry was announced.
Reynolds changed the “PM updates” group’s settings on 15 April 2021 so messages would be automatically deleted after seven days. However, he told the inquiry that much of the material shared in the group was recorded elsewhere either as physical documents or in emails – saying he had copied and pasted from emails into the WhatsApp group as a means of sharing up-to-date information with Johnson.
At an inquiry hearing in October, Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, 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”.
Earlier, former health minister James Bethell had played down the use of non-official communications channels in the Covid response, saying last summer that there was “no way that big decisions were taken over WhatsApp”.
He said in June that the messaging service was more commonly used to find out “who needs to have what kind of coffee for what kind of meeting”, adding that information requested by the Covid Inquiry is mostly “about frothy material, not about meaningful decision making”.