Pressure grows for Covid inquiry to be fast-tracked after Hancock WhatsApp leak

Labour calls for prime minister to ensure that no key evidence, including social media data, is erased

Ministers face calls to “fast-track” the public inquiry into the pandemic as official documents show civil servants are preparing for it to run for five years or longer.

The Labour party has warned that a “painfully slow” Covid inquiry increases the risk of ministers not being properly held to account for their decisions. Labour leader Keir Starmer last week called for it to report by the end of the year.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak also faces calls from Labour to ensure that no key evidence is erased, including ministerial communications on WhatsApp and private email accounts.

The government is under mounting pressure over its handling of the pandemic after the leaking of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages linked to Matt Hancock’s time as health secretary. Hancock has described the leaking of the messages by journalist Isabel Oakeshott as a “massive betrayal”.

The Covid-19 inquiry is chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett and has already instructed 62 barristers. It will begin hearing evidence on 13 June on pandemic preparedness, which is the first “module” of the investigation.

Analysis by Tussell, a firm that monitors government outsourcing, has revealed the cost of 37 public contracts involved in the inquiry has now reached £113m. The figures include indirect costs such as departmental document disclosure, legal support and information technology services. The direct costs of the inquiry to January 2023 is just under £15m, according to an inquiry spokesperson.

The inquiry has not given a timeframe for its investigations, but the contracts awarded in connection with it suggest it may run for years.

The largest was awarded last May to litigation support firm Legastat for disclosure services to the inquiry from the Department of Health and Social Care. The £11.8m contract states a “disclosure database” must be maintained to prepare for hearings until 31 May 2027. There is an option to extend the contract for a further two years.

Charles Arrand, a partner at the legal firm Shoosmiths, said that given the wide scope of the inquiry, it might well go beyond 2027. “I have respect for Keir Starmer as a lawyer but it is wishful thinking and highly unrealistic to think there will be a final report by the end of this year,” he said.

“The pandemic and its impact reached into every corner of society. It will take time to conduct a thorough inquiry. There is no point in spending all this money unless the public has confidence in the inquiry and its conclusions.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said Sunak should take all necessary steps to facilitate the publication of an initial report by the end of the year. She also called for him to prevent any destruction of relevant communications and ensure ministers hand over every single message relevant to the inquiry.

Lord Bethell, a former health minister, has already admitted inadvertently deleting WhatsApp messages relating to how personal protection equipment contracts were awarded. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme last week: “I had an issue with capacity on my phone … and I clumsily deleted them. In retrospect, I regret doing that.”

Rayner said: “Rishi Sunak must get a grip and take steps to prevent the destruction of evidence by government ministers. If evidence is destroyed, justice may be denied.

“The prime minister must take personal responsibility to ensure the public have confidence that ministers will be held to account and families get the answers they deserve. If he fails to act, he risks being complicit in a cover-up.

“While other countries’ Covid inquiries have already concluded, unforgivable delays caused by Tory ministers dragging their heels have stymied the already painfully slow process of getting to the truth.” At a preliminary inquiry hearing on Wednesday, Baroness Hallett said the inquiry would not be a “whitewash”. She also said it would not “drag on for decades” and a decision had already been made to issue interim reports.

An inquiry spokesperson said: “This public inquiry has been set up to investigate extensive terms of reference and that will take time, which the chair made no apology about last year when the inquiry was officially launched.”

Three modules have been announced to date (resilience and preparedness; core UK decision making, and impact of Covid-19 on UK healthcare), with further investigations to be announced in the summer.

The spokesperson said the inquiry had not entered into a contract with Legastat and could not comment on the timeframe given in the document.


Jon Ungoed-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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