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What’s the buzz about Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages in Britain?

by Michael Nguyen
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WhatsApp messages

The Controversy Surrounding Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp Messages Grips Britain

With the widespread use of WhatsApp among politicians and officials, critics are accusing the British government of conducting “government by WhatsApp.” It comes as no surprise, then, that a clash over WhatsApp messages lies at the center of the official inquiry into the UK’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The investigation, led by retired judge Heather Hallett, relies heavily on thousands of messages exchanged during the pandemic between former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, government ministers, aides, and officials. However, the current Conservative government, now headed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, seeks to edit the messages before their submission, claiming that some are personal and irrelevant to the inquiry. This disagreement has led to a legal challenge against Hallett’s order for the unredacted messages to be surrendered.

THE PURPOSE OF THE INQUIRY

The inquiry aims to investigate several aspects: the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic, the government’s response, and whether the extent of loss suffered was inevitable or if better actions could have been taken. The public hearings are scheduled to commence on June 13 and continue until 2026, during which time the former prime minister and numerous senior officials are expected to provide testimony.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WHATSAPP

The messaging service, owned by Meta, has become a preferred communication tool for UK government officials and the journalists who cover them. Its user-friendly interface facilitates individual and group chats, while the end-to-end encryption offers a sense of privacy and security for users. However, this perceived security has been challenged in the past. Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who played a crucial role in the country’s pandemic response, shared tens of thousands of his messages with a journalist assisting him in writing a memoir. These messages were later leaked to a newspaper, resulting in embarrassing revelations being published on front pages.

THE GOVERNMENT’S POSITION

The current government, led by Sunak, argues that certain messages are “unambiguously irrelevant” to the COVID-19 inquiry. They contend that making them public would intrude on other government work and violate individuals’ expectations of privacy and protection of personal information. In response to Hallett’s request for the documents, the government’s Cabinet Office has filed court papers challenging the order. Legal experts anticipate the government may struggle to win the challenge, as Hallett has the authority, as agreed upon at the inquiry’s inception, to summon evidence and question witnesses under oath.

BORIS JOHNSON’S STANCE

Boris Johnson has distanced himself from the government’s position, expressing his willingness to provide his messages to Hallett’s inquiry. However, there is a twist: he has only submitted messages from a portion of the requested period, excluding any prior to April 2021. This timeframe includes the early stages of the pandemic, during which crucial and contentious decisions were made, as well as multiple national lockdowns and incidents of rule-breaking parties in government buildings that resulted in fines for numerous individuals, including Johnson. The prime minister claims that these messages are stored on a phone he was instructed to stop using after it was discovered that his number had been publicly available online for 15 years. Johnson informed Hallett that he has sought assistance from the Cabinet Office to securely access the phone and provide all relevant material directly to her.

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