Government willing to enter mediation with Covid inquiry over WhatsApps, minister says

Tory MPs criticised the Government for challenging Baroness Hallett, the chair of the Covid inquiry - PA Media/UK Parliament
Tory MPs criticised the Government for challenging Baroness Hallett, the chair of the Covid inquiry - PA Media/UK Parliament

The Government is willing to enter into mediation with the chair of the Covid inquiry as the battle over ministers’ WhatsApps continues.

Jeremy Quin, a Cabinet Office minister, said it would be “welcome” if the Government could find a way of resolving the issue without going to court – indicating that it was considering a compromise with the inquiry.

And he admitted that ministers’ decision to seek a judicial review into the inquiry’s demands to see WhatsApps the Government deems “irrelevant” could cause delays.

Module 2 of the inquiry will examine core UK decision making and political governance and public hearings will begin in October. The inquiry hopes to publish the report for this module in 2024.

Tory MPs lined up to criticise the Government for challenging the inquiry chair, Baroness Hallett, with one saying: “Let them have what they want and let’s get to the truth.”

Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, said it seemed clear the Government was going to lose the application, which is set to be heard on Jun 30 or soon after.

Mr Quin said the matter was being “expedited” and pledged that all government correspondence relating to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic would be “made transparently available” to the investigation.

Inquiry delay

In answer to a Labour MP, Mr Quin suggested the inquiry could be delayed if the judicial review went ahead – but expressed his hope that it would not.

“We are hoping to get this in front of the courts very swiftly,” he said. “I hope there’ll be no requirement for a delay. I sincerely hope the inquiry can continue its work in the meantime.

“And if there is a means of resolving this without going to the courts themselves, that would obviously be welcome.”

Mr Quin said the Government wanted to ensure that “unambiguously irrelevant” material would not be sent, including messages of a personal nature.

But veteran MP Sir Edward Leigh pointed out that Boris Johnson had been forced out because of personal behaviour not policy decisions.

He also praised The Telegraph’s front page on Monday which reported claims that lockdown saved as few as 1,700 lives in England and Wales in spring 2020.

Sir Edward said that such stories demonstrated the need for all information to be released – and urged ministers to drop the challenge, saying they should “let everything hang out”, adding: “Let them have what they want and let’s get to the truth.”

Mr Buckland said: “Is it not the case that the courts are going to be very reluctant to get involved in second guessing the decision making by Baroness Hallett and they are going to have to decide that she has got things very wrong indeed before they wish to intervene?

“Therefore doesn’t it beg this question – the old wartime adage – is your journey really necessary?”

Meanwhile, the Covid inquiry is facing a backlash from families of the bereaved after prioritising its examination of the successful vaccine rollout over care home failings.

Amid an ongoing dispute with the Government over its refusal to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, the inquiry was criticised on Monday after deciding not to hear some evidence likely to be critical of ministers until after the election.

The inquiry has decided to bring evidence on its fourth module examining “vaccines, therapeutics and anti-viral treatment across the UK” forward to the summer of 2024.

Care sector evidence

However, hearings for its investigations into healthcare systems, procurement and the care sector will come afterwards, with evidence on the care sector will not be heard until the sixth module in 2025.

Barbara Herbert, spokesman for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, questioned why the inquiry was not leaving the examination of the vaccine rollout until the end of the process.

Mrs Herbert, who lost her husband to Covid, said that the decision on timing of modules was done with no consultation of families and that the inquiry had not explained its rationale for the decision.

“Healthcare systems and the care sector are clearly two of the most critical areas where major lessons need to be learned before another pandemic strikes,” she said.

“The horrific spread of Covid-19 both in hospitals and care homes led to countless deaths that could have otherwise been avoided. It clearly makes sense for these areas to be looked at as quickly as possible by the inquiry, so that conclusions and recommendations can be made ASAP.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that the inquiry has suddenly decided to bring the module on vaccines forward ahead of these issues, and that the care sector won’t be looked at until 2025 at the earliest. Baroness Hallet’s team needs to be singularly focused on saving lives and nothing else.”