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Top Civil Servant "Cannot Recall" Why He Turned On WhatsApp Disappearing Messages During Covid

Martin Reynolds giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry (Covid Inquiry)

5 min read

Martin Reynolds, the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister during the key stages of the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 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.

A number of senior politicians including former prime minister David Cameron, ex-chancellor George Osborne and the current deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden have already given evidence to the inquiry, which is investigating the effectiveness and decision-making behind the UK government's response to the pandemic.

On Monday the latest stage of the inquiry heard that Reynolds, a senior civil servant, 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 Covid Inquiry 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 were merely a way to "funnel" information to Johnson in a succinct way.

The 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. 

The former private secretary said that during the early months of the pandemic, WhatsApp was used more often, but insisted that "emails and WhatsApps relating to decision-making processes were retained”.

He argued that the vast majority of WhatsApps were of an "ephemeral nature": chats between colleagues communicated in the same way as they might have been “in the corridor” before official processes and decisions actually took place. 

The evidence session also explored when the government was able to respond to the pandemic effectively, with Reynolds admitting that it found it "very, very difficult" to function.

"I think there are organisational challenges within the Cabinet Office and there were many things which could have been done differently," Reynolds said.

"It didn't have the plans and processes in place to move through from the early stage to the crisis stage. The flipside of that is the scale of Covid is so big, if you have a very big pandemic and you don't have the right plans in place, then of course the machinery starts to find it very, very difficult to function."

Evidence shown to the inquiry included Whatsapp messages written by Simon Case in autumn 2020, who has been the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service since September that year, as well as by Dominic Cummings, then-chief of staff to the prime minister. 

One of the messages by Case wrote that he was "end of my tether", complaining that Johnson was not offering clear leadership to guide the country through the pandemic.

Covid Inquiry whatsapp message by Simon Case
Whatsapp messages written by Simon Case explicitly criticise former prime minister Boris Johnson (Covid Inquiry)

"He changes strategic direction every day (Monday we were all about fear of virus returning as per Europe, March etc - today we were in "let it rip" mode cos the UK is pathetic, needs a cold shower etc)," Case wrote.

"He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach. The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day.

"The team can't deliver anything under these circumstances. A weak team (as we have got - Hancock, Williamson, Dido, No 10/CO, Perm Secs) definitely cannot succeed in these circs.

"IT HAS TO STOP! Decide and set direction - deliver - explain. Gov't isn't actually that hard, but this guy is really making it impossible."

The former private secretary said that while a detailed plan might not be possible in advance of such events, there should have been a more coherent "strategic direction".

"A pandemic as complex and challenging as Covid, you can't have a meticulously organised plan, but you need to know the parameters of what you're trying to achieve and what the strategic direction is," he said.

He suggested the government had not had such a plan in place and was therefore "playing catch up" as the pandemic unfolded.

Reynolds was also asked whether he considered the Johnson administration in January and February 2020 a “novice” one which was unable structurally to cope with such a huge crisis, so soon after the 2019 general election. 

“It is fair to say that the dynamic in March 2020 was very different to the dynamics before the election," he said.

"The [electoral] majority was very different, there had been a very big shift pre-election to Brexit and the negotiations and that had been the overriding focus for three or four months.

"That had been concluded, the election had happened, there was a significant turning of the page... there was a sense that the government had a five or ten year horizon to look at so there was a real focus on the forward agenda.”

Reynolds said there was a period where government had to "get used to" this different direction and figure out how to navigate "slightly divergent internal politics” between then-prime minister Johnson and Cummings.

Reynolds agreed that there was a lack of discipline, chaos and "significant degree of misogyny" within government at the time and that the "treatment of women" remained an "ongoing cultural issue which I think we could have done more to address".

The former private secretary had co-signed a document in 2020 with fellow civil servant Helen MacNamara which detailed how women were being talked over and people shouted at each other in meetings.

The report by Reynolds and MacNamara detailed how No10 was "always at war with someone" and there was "not enough trust" in government.

"Lots of people' mentioned junior women being talked over or ignored. We need a modern culture of organised collaboration, not superhero bunfight," the report said.

Later on Monday, former private secretary Imran Shafi will also be giving evidence.

On Tuesday, Lee Cain, Johnson’s former communications chief, and Cummings will also appear to give evidence.

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