Revelation of messages shows astonishing extent to which ‘virtual’ snap decisions affecting millions of lives were taken on the hoof
“Let’s use this when we need to move fast,” said Matt Hancock in one of the high-powered WhatsApp groups he created at the beginning of the pandemic, “so we’re all on the same page at all times”.
Now the former health secretary’s WhatsApp messages have made it into The Telegraph, he may well live to regret that decision.
What The Lockdown Files show is the astonishing extent to which key government decisions were made on the instant messenger app – with its distinctive double blue tick read receipts.
The Telegraph has obtained more than 100,000 messages between Mr Hancock and other ministers and officials. That’s 2.3 million words that were pinging around various top-level groups as decisions were taken that had an unprecedented effect on the lives and civil liberties of the public.
While Mr Hancock has rightly pointed out that the WhatsApp messages only reveal a fraction of a much wider cross-governmental conversation on coronavirus policy, even Downing Street has been forced to admit WhatsApp has become “part and parcel of modern government”.
As the Prime Minister’s press secretary explained when asked by The Telegraph on Wednesday whether Rishi Sunak uses WhatsApp: “A range of ways in which government officials and others communicate are used, that’s not unusual, that’s the same for the Prime Minister.”
His official spokesman added: “The rules set out that ministers are able to discuss government business over text messages or WhatsApp, that’s entirely within the rules, understandably part and parcel of modern government.
“The requirement is that substantive decisions are communicated to their private office.”
While there was undoubtedly a need to expedite decision-making during the first wave of the pandemic, when the picture was rapidly changing, The Lockdown Files do raise legitimate questions about the structure of government at a time when Britain faced its biggest crisis since the Second World War.
Conversations were held to a remarkable extent on WhatsApp, with snap decisions seemingly taken on the hoof at various junctures.
In Boris Johnson’s informal style of government, mobile phone messaging often appeared to supplant Cabinet meetings as a forum for deciding Britain’s future.
As Bim Afolami, the Tory MP for Harpenden and Hitchin, pointed out as the story broke on Tuesday night – government by WhatsApp is not without its pitfalls.
“People have to be incredibly careful what they put on emails and WhatsApp messages and text messages to each other,” he told TalkTV.
He said that is not to “hide what you’re doing” but because: “When things are happening quickly in politics, you just constantly are thinking on your feet and that isn’t necessarily your best analysis, that isn’t necessarily your best self.
“In days gone by when people would write memos, it meant they had to really consider decisions properly and then they’d write them, they’d have more formal meetings where things were written up.”
He said that “meant you actually got better decision-making because you’re forced to slow down”, adding: “I think that what we’re seeing is the real problem of people making decisions on the fly at 2am on WhatsApp.”
Sir Tony Blair, the former prime minister, was criticised for presiding over “sofa government” where meetings would frequently be held with close advisers and supporters outside the formal apparatus of government.
The Lockdown Files suggest this was taken a step further during the pandemic – with some decisions taken “virtually” and only rubber-stamped by the full Cabinet, which was often kept out of the discussion process altogether.
Naturally, it raises fears that sometimes cavalier decisions were made on the basis of a gut feeling rather than the evidence-led approach normally associated with policies that lead to the closure of schools and businesses, as well as confining people to their homes.
What this extraordinary cache of messages lays bare is the extent to which the thinking on WhatsApp groups turned into groupthink as decisions purporting to “follow the science” faced little scrutiny outside of the participants added by admin.