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Coronavirus and WhatsApp: The Death of Accountability

Updated: May 23

The UK’s Covid Inquiry resumed proceedings in Scotland at the beginning of February, turning to the North of the United Kingdom to understand what went right and what went wrong in how the pandemic was dealt with by government officials. And sadly, it seemed to be the same situation as every stage of the inquiry so far.


By now we’re all far too familiar with the disasters of the Covid response in England, the lockdown parties in Downing Street, the failure to close the borders to prevent infections spreading, the mixed signals, and the accusations of outright lies. What seems to have made this even worse is the endless stream of UK government officials turning up to the Covid Inquiry with the same answers; they ‘do not recall’, they ‘do not know’, and that they somehow have no access to the relevant WhatsApp messages from the time.


Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson, and Penny Mourdant have sat in front of a public inquiry into one of the greatest health emergencies in modern British history and have failed to recall the necessary evidence. However, as the inquiry moves up to Scotland, it seems they will not be the unique in doing so.


Both Nicola Sturgeon, the former First Minister of Scotland, and Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer have admitted all WhatsApp messages related to Covid have been deleted. At this point, you, like me, might think this is all getting a bit ridiculous. Are our government officials so incompetent at record keeping and using basic technology that they cannot even keep hold of their own messages? Of course they’re not.


This is once again just a thinly veiled attempt at sidestepping any form of accountability. On the other hand, this pattern of behaviour is not shocking, when we look at the state of some of the messages we have seen. Michael Gove said the government was ‘f***ing up’ their Covid response, Dominic Cummings called the cabinet ‘useless f***pigs’ and Boris Johnson ‘exhausting’, and the Head of the Civil Service called the government ‘a terrible, tragic, joke’. Is it possible that the various government officials without access to the relevant messages are just hiding messages far worse than those we've already seen?


In any case, hiding or failing to hand over relevant information to a statutory public inquiry does not come without consequences. The chief of the inquiry Baroness Hallett has the authority to hand out fines up to £1000 or sentences of up to 51 weeks in prison. Now whilst £1000 may not even put the smallest dent in the fortune of Rishi Sunak (a reported £730 million when combined with his wife), it is the symbolism of this that could be so impactful. It would show MPs and MSPs being called out for their actions, reinforcing that they are not above the law.


The purpose of public inquiries is to actively prevent past events from repeating themselves, and from what we’ve seen so far, those who were tasked with protecting us during the pandemic are going out of their way to undermine this process. The harm is not limited to our ability to be prepared for health crises, but to the accountability of our politics. According to a 2022 report by the Office 0f National Statistics, only 35% of the public in the UK trust the government.  At the end of the day, the British public is steadily becoming more sceptical of our their own democracy and its due to their politicians dishonesty. The people who work for us, who are supposed to protect our interests and make responsible decisions for the benefit of the country, do not want us to see what they’ve been saying to each other behind closed doors. It's makes one think the worst. Politics is meant to work for the greater good of all not top actively avoid improving our crisis responses in order to save face.


At a time when MPs and MSPs are going out of their way to avoid the glare of accountability from the public, let me posit this: if you in your everyday job was seen to have broken the law and/or consistently fail to perform the tasks of that job and then went on to hide or lose the evidence of this in the face of enquiry, what do you think would happen to you? Realistically most of us would be fired, imprisoned, fined.


By getting away with misdirection, avoidance, even incompetency time and time again, means the accountability of politicians is dying in the eyes of the public. We’re reaching a point where there could be no cure, no way back.


As we continue to move through this inquiry over the next couple of years, the relevant devolved powers and those from central government will be called up plenty more times to say their piece. Hopefully the inquiry’s outcome will not only assess the failings of our COVID response but face the persistent failures of accountability endemic in Britain's pandemic government.

Image: Dominic's pics

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