PM faces Covid inquiry amid speculation WhatsApps may be recoverable from ‘broken phone’

Rishi Sunak will today face the Covid inquiry for an eight-hour grilling, where he is expected to be questioned over his patronage of the controversial “Eat Out to Help Out Scheme” and the reasons he was unable to disclose some key contemporaneous WhatsApps.

It comes after pranksters were reported to have been able to access an old phone number of the former chancellor, one that he used during a crucial period of the pandemic.

As a result, questions are being asked over whether the prime minister has disclosed the requisite material associated with that number to the inquiry.

The Covid inquiry has been given access to tranches of WhatsApps from relevant key actors during the pandemic, with the messages used to piece together day-to-day decision-making in No 10 and beyond. 

But the inquiry’s inability to see some WhatsApps from key actors has already been the cause of controversy. 

Boris Johnson, the former prime minister who was in office for the duration of the pandemic, was questioned last week over his inability to hand over messages between 31 January and 7 June 2020.

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The inquiry heard that about 5,000 WhatsApp messages from the period from Johnson’s phone had not been located. 

Johnson dismissed the line of questioning, however, telling lead inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC: “I don’t know the exact reason, but it looks as though it’s something to do with the app going down and then coming up again, but somehow automatically erasing all the things between that date when it went down and the moment when it was last backed up.”

The Liberal Democrat Party have now written to attorney general Victoria Prentis to ask for clarification over the status of Sunak’s missing messages. 

The party told the attorney general it “would be a criminal offence under the Inquiries Act 2005” to withhold them.

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, told the Guardian newspaper: “It is a travesty that Rishi Sunak’s WhatsApp messages have not been released to the Covid-19 inquiry”.

She added: “The allegations that Sunak’s ‘broken phone’ may be recoverable will be highly concerning to the thousands of bereaved families who lost loved ones during the pandemic.

“Sunak must not duck and dive from scrutiny and accountability over his decisions during the pandemic. Any such action would certainly be immoral – and possibly illegal. The prime minister must come clean. If he has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear.”

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A government spokesperson told the Guardian: “As a matter of longstanding policy, we would never comment on security matters. The prime minister and government is fully cooperating with the inquiry. We have submitted more than 55,000 documents in support of their work. We are clear that to ensure the integrity of the inquiry, evidence submitted should be heard in context and in full.”

The Guardian also records a section of the prime minister’s witness statement to the inquiry, in which he says: “Having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years, I do not have access to the WhatsApp messages that I sent or received during the relevant time, and neither were the messages backed up.

“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.”

The prime minister may be more concerned, however, with the line of questioning pertaining to his patronage of the controversial “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme. 

Both then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty said they were not consulted on Eat Out to Help Out before it was introduced.

Rishi Sunak referred to as ‘Dr Death’ in WhatsApp messages seen by Covid inquiry is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter