The Information Commissioner’s office has confirmed it will investigate private use of WhatsApp and other phone messaging apps and channels to conduct government business, as well as email, after Labor requested further details of its investigation into Health Secretary Lord Bethell.
Labor wrote to Elizabeth Denham, the information officer, after it became known that Bethell was replacing its cell phone before it could be searched for information relevant to £ 85 million in Covid test deals that are being legally challenged.
Following the reveal, the party’s vice-chair Angela Rayner wrote to the ICO asking for confirmation that the minister’s use of WhatsApp would be covered by an investigation into the use of private communications for government business at the Department of Health and Social Affairs.
In a response to Rayner, the Information Commissioner’s office said its investigation included “messenger apps like WhatsApp and all other private channels that are outside of the DHSC’s corporate systems.”
“This includes reviewing the retention, security and deletion of matters relevant to company records to ensure that they have been handled appropriately,” it said.
Rayner also urged Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, to ensure that every effort is made to retrieve all messages relevant to the judicial review and to ensure that Bethell has complied with ministerial law.
Mr. Bethell. Photo: Justin Tallis / AFP / Getty Images
Bethell, who oversaw the procurement of Covid contracts, is one of those who was put to the test at the height of the pandemic about the way personal protective equipment (PPE) stores and testing were placed.
A lawsuit initiated by the Good Law Project is expected to expose the government to its correspondence including email, WhatsApp and SMS relating to the award of £ 85 million in antibody testing contracts to Abingdon Health.
However, a testimony from a government attorney revealed that Bethell replaced its phone in early 2021 and it may no longer be possible to get the information about its dealings with Abingdon, despite efforts being made to restore all messages from its wireless operator.
Rayner, Deputy Labor Leader and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “It is unacceptable to discuss millions of pounds of taxpayer-funded contracts on a private device … to be brought to court and included in the public inquiry into the pandemic.
“These missing messages are vital evidence and those left behind deserve nothing less than the whole truth.”
In a testimony, a government attorney said efforts would be made to get any messages from the carrier on the old phone that might be related to Abingdon Health deals.
Abingdon Health said it could confirm that no senior executive had sent or received any SMS or WhatsApp messages with Lord Bethell or other government ministers.
“Abingdon Health’s senior management team’s cell phones have not been replaced or lost and the senior management team is happy to affirm that no such text or WhatsApp messages have been sent or received,” it said.
The company said Abingdon Health has extensive experience developing lateral flow tests and said the government essentially refused to pay Abingdon Health for the goods and services provided under the contract.
The company is said to have outstanding invoices with the DHSC totaling £ 6.7m, including £ 5.15m for £ 1m.