Pressure is mounting that the Covid investigation after the Hancock WhatsApp leak needs to be expedited

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Ministers are being urged to have the public inquiry into the pandemic “accelerated” as official documents show officials are preparing to run for five years or more.

The Labor Party has warned that a ‘naggingly slow’ Covid inquiry increases the risk that ministers will not be properly held accountable for their decisions. Union leader Keir Starmer last week called for a report by the end of the year.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is also facing calls from Labor to ensure key evidence is not deleted, including ministerial communications on WhatsApp and private email accounts.

The Government is under mounting pressure over how it is handling the pandemic after more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages related to Matt Hancock’s time as Health Secretary were leaked. Hancock has called the leak of journalist Isabel Oakeshott’s messages a “massive betrayal”.

The Covid-19 inquiry is being led by Baroness Heather Hallett and has already engaged 62 lawyers. She will begin hearing evidence on pandemic preparedness on June 13, which is the first “module” of the inquiry.

An analysis by Tussell, a firm that monitors government outsourcing, has revealed that the cost of 37 public contracts involved in the survey has now reached £113million. The figures include indirect costs such as disclosure of documents by the department, legal advice and IT services. The direct cost of the inquiry up to January 2023 is just under £15million, according to an inquiry spokesman.

The inquiry hasn’t given a timeline for their investigations, but the related contracts suggest they could stretch for years.

The largest was awarded to litigation support firm Legastat for disclosure services for the Department of Health and Social Care’s request last May. The £11.8million deal says a “disclosure database” must be maintained to prepare for hearings by May 31, 2027. There is an option to extend the contract for a further two years.

Charles Arrand, a partner at law firm Shoosmiths, said the investigation could well extend beyond 2027 given the broad scope of the investigation. “I have respect for Keir Starmer as a lawyer, but it is wishful thinking and highly unrealistic to believe that that will be the case before the end of this year,” he said.

“The pandemic and its effects have reached every corner of society. It will take time to conduct a thorough investigation. There is no point in spending all this money unless the public has confidence in the investigation and its conclusions.”

Labor Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said Sunak should take all necessary steps to facilitate the release of a first report by the end of the year. She also urged him to prevent any destruction of relevant communications and to ensure ministers turn over every single message relevant to the investigation.

Lord Bethell, a former Health Secretary, has previously admitted to accidentally deleting WhatsApp messages relating to the awarding of contracts for personal protective equipment. He told BBC Radio 4 Today Program last week: “I had an issue with my phone’s capacity… and I clumsily erased it. In hindsight I regret that.”

Rayner said, “Rishi Sunak must come to grips with himself and take steps to prevent government ministers from destroying evidence. When evidence is destroyed, justice can be denied.

“The Prime Minister needs to take personal responsibility to ensure the public trusts ministers are held accountable and families get the answers they deserve. If he doesn’t act, he risks complicity in a cover-up.

“While other countries’ Covid inquiries have already concluded, unforgivable delays caused by Tory ministers have hampered the already painfully slow truth-telling process.” At a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Baroness Hallett said the inquiry was not a “whitewash “. She also said it “won’t drag on for decades” and that it had already decided to issue interim reports.

A spokesman for the inquiry said: “This public inquiry was set up to investigate a wide range of issues and it will take some time, for which the Chair made no apology last year when the inquiry was officially launched.”

Three modules have been announced so far (Resilience and Preparedness; Key UK Decisions and Impact of Covid-19 on UK Healthcare), with further research to be announced over the summer.

The spokesman said the investigation had no contract with Legastat and could not comment on the timeframe given in the document.

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