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Home ยป Covid Inquiry WhatsApps Paint Picture Of Chaos

Covid Inquiry WhatsApps Paint Picture Of Chaos

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, WhatsApp messages sent by the head of the civil service Simon Case during the pandemic were highly critical of the PM’s actions and temperament

By Chris Mason

Political editor, BBC News

Shambolic dysfunction in Downing Street, with thousands upon thousands of lives at stake.

That is the claim, to the Covid inquiry, from some of those who worked very closely alongside Boris Johnson during the pandemic.

They are painting a picture of chaos, and of a prime minister they claim was temperamentally unsuited to the scale of the challenge the pandemic confronted him with.

We will see how Mr Johnson and others respond to this in the coming weeks.

This inquiry is giving us a look into the workings of government, with the bonnet up. And, bluntly, it is not a pretty sight: a health emergency, the liberty and education of millions curtailed, the economic future of the country on the line too.

Learning lessons afterwards is what a public inquiry is all about – and the UK, in modern times, had never been confronted with anything like Covid-19.

For those of us pouring over the evidence now gushing towards us, there is a clear risk of hindsight bias. We know now what came next; we didn’t – and they didn’t – know then.

What stands out to me so far is a combination of factors which affords us a unique and real time rolling insight into the moods, whims, frustrations and anger of key players at the time.

The pandemic, with its need for social distance, coincided with a written communications tool – WhatsApp – becoming a mainstream platform for communication.

But not just any communication: an informal, minute-by-minute written down substitution for what might otherwise have been said out loud ad-libbed remarks, lost to the ether moments after their utterance.

Instead, as patchy as it might be in the places, we get a glimpse of the tone and mood of senior figures, and not just their point of view.

It is often many of the things many of us can be some of the time: unvarnished, crude and shorn of the usual gloss applied to communications for public consumption.

And it’s fascinating. We are getting a sense of the organisational oddities, human failings and frailties, and decision making processes of those who fate chose to be in positions of power when the pandemic struck – and so compelled to make decisions of a magnitude none of them can have anticipated ever having to make.

And there is plenty more to come – Boris Johnson’s former director of communications, Lee Cain, and his former chief of staff, Dominic Cummings.

All of this matters, for three reasons: the accountability of individuals; the lessons future governments can learn; and, also, the implications for the politics of today.

Because after we have heard from the Downing Street advisers, it will be the turn, before Christmas, to hear from the politicians.

Yes, Boris Johnson, but also, too, Rishi Sunak – the chancellor then, the prime minister now.

The electorate will be reminded now of events then, and decisions then, which he took.

And a final thought: given the unprecedented scale of what confronted the government then, how much of the chaos we are now getting a glimpse of would have been likely under any prime minister, or collection of senior individuals in government?

And how much was a direct consequence of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Cummings and others, and the relationships between them?

It is a question that will always be – to a great extent – unanswerable.

But it is one worth keeping in mind as the inquiry progresses.