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LONDON — A senior U.K. civil servant who worked closely with Boris Johnson turned on WhatsApp’s controversial disappearing messages function in a group used by government figures, weeks before the then-prime minister announced a public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.
Testimony revealed in Britain’s COVID-19 inquiry Monday showed that Martin Reynolds — who served as Johnson’s principal private secretary — turned on the function on April 15, 2021 in a WhatsApp group containing senior figures including Johnson and other top No. 10 Downing Street advisers and civil servants.
Johnson announced the public inquiry into coronavirus on May 12, 2021.
The independent inquiry was set up to learn lessons from the pandemic, and demanded the mass disclosure of messages from the encrypted app. In public evidence sessions, the inquiry is grilling senior figures involved with the U.K.’s response to COVID-19.
In an evidence session with Reynolds Monday, the former civil servant said he couldn’t recall why he’d turned on the disappearing messages function in the group he set up. The feature deletes all messages sent from that point after seven days — meaning texts sent after April 15 in the group no longer exist and cannot be scrutinized by the inquiry.
“I can guess or I can speculate, but I cannot recall exactly why I did so,” Reynolds said when pressed on the move. He argued that most of the government-related content in the group was copied and pasted from emails.
Separately, the inquiry was shown WhatsApp messages sent between Reynolds and Simon Case, the U.K. civil service boss currently on leave for medical reasons.
In the messages, sent in December 2021, Case says that then-PM Boris Johnson is “mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via COVID inquiry.”
“But [Johnson] was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year,” Case texts.
“Agree — thanks for your help.” Reynolds replies.