Department of Health behaved during the pandemic, which found there was “extensive use of private correspondence channels by ministers and staff by Watchdog calls”. “The most widely available evidence in the public domain also suggests that this practice is commonly seen in much of the rest of government and predates the pandemic,” the report added.
The investigation has found that important information about the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic may have been lost or handled insecurely due to the use of messaging apps. Earlier this year, Lord Evans, then chairman of the standards in public life committee, said the government had shown “carelessness” in its attitude to standards and criticized ministers Watchdog calls for conducting official business via WhatsApp. However, they also “presented risks to the confidentiality, integrity and accessibility of data exchanges,” the ICO report added. In particular, it found that the Department of Health’s “policies and procedures were inconsistent with the Cabinet Office’s policy on the use of private email…and had some significant gaps based on how key people worked in practice.
“This presented a risk of effective handling of information requests in accordance with the relevant codes of practice under [the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act)].”The correspondence channels used were ‘legal’. The data Watchdog calls, which is responsible for enforcing the FOI Act, has issued a formal order to the Department of Health requiring it to improve the way it responds to requests for information. Last year, the government denied setting up a “Clearing House” unit to profile journalists and undermine freedom of information requests, following a letter from newspaper publishers demanding action. The department was also reprimanded and told to “improve its processes and procedures around the handling of personal information through private correspondence channels and ensure information is kept secure.”
“To ensure that broader lessons are learned, the ICO is also asking the government to set up a separate review on the use of these channels,” he said. A government spokesman said: “This Watchdog calls report makes it clear that the correspondence channels used by ministers and the department were legal.