Martin Reynolds was grilled about switching the function to delete messages in the then-PM’s group April 2021 – just after Mr Johnson announced an inquiry – as he gave evidence on Monday.
Mr Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, told the inquiry he “cannot recall exactly why I did so” – before adding that he did not believe it was to “prevent” the inquiry having access to the messages.
The former No 10 official – dubbed “Party Marty” for his infamous ‘bring your own booze” drinks event email during Partygate – also said he was “deeply sorry” for his role in organising the garden party and Mr Johnson’s birthday gathering at No 10.
He said he was sorry for “my part in those events” and said he wanted to “apologise unreservedly to all the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused”.
It also emerged that chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance blasted Mr Johnson’s “ridiculous flip-flopping” on key Covid decisions – calling the then-PM “weak and indecisive” and “all over the place and completely inconsistent”.
And in scathing evidence, the nation’s top civil servant Simon Case said in September 2020 saying Mr Johnson’s inconsistent made it “impossible” to tackle the Covid crisis – saying the PM “cannot lead”.
The cabinet secretary said: “I am at the end of my tether. The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day … IT HAS TO STOP!”
Mr Reynolds, grilled on why he had deleted messages, said he may have been worried about colleagues screenshotting the WhatsApp messages and leaking them to the media.
“I can speculate as to why I might have done it … It could, for example, have been because I was worried of someone screenshotting or using some of the exchanges and leaking them,” said Mr Reynolds.
The reference to Mr Johnson being “mad” was made in WhatsApp messages between Mr Case and Mr Reynolds from December 2021. Mr Case said: “PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry – but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We’ll have that battle in the new year.”
Mr Reynolds was asked by Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, what that “battle” over WhatsApp messages referenced in the messages was about.
Mr Reynolds said: “I cannot recall, but I imagine that the prime minster – I’m afraid I can only speculate – but I imagine he hadn’t realised that all of his WhatApps would become public via the Covid inquiry.”
Mr Keith added: “Because of course as the then prime minister, his WhatsApps would form a vital part of a full, transparent examination of the decision-making at the time, as yours would?” Mr Reynolds replied: “Yes.”
Mr Reynolds also suggested he was worried about leaks when he admitted deleting messages. The inquiry heard Mr Reynolds had turned on a “disappearing message function” on a WhatsApp group titled “PM Updates” on 15 April 2021. Mr Johnson first promised a Covid inquiry on 24 March.
Downing Street said on Monday that government officials are “permitted” to disappear their WhatsApp messages, amid concern it has become common practice among ministers and their special advisers.
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said updated guidance from March allows the disppaearing function – so long as civil servants “record and log official decisions and views for their record where it is relevant and appropriate”. Asked if No 10 thought current guidance was sufficient, the PM’s spokesman said: “Yes.”
Mr Reynolds said Mr Cummings brought an “unusual dynamic” to No 10 and created “unease” among officials. He said the strategist was “the person whose writ ruled” and referenced a so-called “s***list” reportedly drawn up by Mr Cummings on civil servants.
“There was, I think, quite a bit of unease in the civil service around, and excuse my language, the so-called s***list of people who were thought to be risks in what was perceived to be a potentially more muscular approach to the civil service.”
Mr Vallance also described Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle lockdown trip as a “fiasco” and something that was “clearly against the rules”.
Mr Reynolds also said he could not recall why Mr Johnson did not chair an emergency Cobra meeting on Covid in January 2020. Asked about a ten-day period in February 2020, the half-term holiday when Mr Johnson was not given information about the pandemic, Mr Reynolds said he “probably should” have done more to inform the PM.
He appeared to acknowledge the Cabinet Office was not adequately ready for the scale of the Covid pandemic. “With the benefit of hindsight, it does appear that we should have been far more vigorously looking and testing out arrangements for what was coming.”
A range of senior officials, including Mr Cummings, will appear before Lady Hallet’s inquiry this week. Ex-No 10 director of communications Lee Cain will give evidence later, as well as former private secretary to the PM for public services Imran Shafi.