THE Department of Health and Social Care (DHS) has been issued with a formal reprimand by the official information watchdog over the use of private messaging channels by ministers and officials during the pandemic.

A year-long inquiry by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) found there was “extensive use” of such channels within the department, resulting in a risk important information about the Government’s response may have been lost.

It said the DHSC had lacked the “appropriate organisational or technical controls” to ensure risks were properly managed and called for a government-wide review into the use of such channels – including private emails and WhatsApp messages – across Whitehall.

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The ICO launched its investigation in July last year amid concerns about the use of private messaging channels by the former health secretary Matt Hancock – who had resigned the previous month over a breach of Covid regulations while with his mistress – and his deputy, Lord Bethell.

While it acknowledged the use of private channels had brought real operational benefits when the country was facing “exceptional pressures” as a result of the pandemic, it expressed concern that such practices continued as “business as usual”.

The Information Commissioner John Edwards said: “I understand the value of instant communication that something like WhatsApp can bring, particularly during the pandemic where officials were forced to make quick decisions and work to meet varying demands.

“However, the price of using these methods, although not against the law, must not result in a lack of transparency and inadequate data security.

The National: The ICO launched it's investigation over concerns about the use of private messaging under Matt Hancock's tenure as health secretaryThe ICO launched it's investigation over concerns about the use of private messaging under Matt Hancock's tenure as health secretary

“Public officials should be able to show their workings, for both record keeping purposes and to maintain public confidence. That is how trust in those decisions is secured and lessons are learnt for the future.”

Following its inquiry, the ICO said it was issuing the DHSC with a reprimand under the UK General Data Protection Regulation as well as an instruction ordering it to improve its management of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

It found that while there was evidence ministers had regularly copied information into government accounts to maintain the record, there was a risk that this arrangement was not always followed.

Policies and procedures in the DHSC were “inconsistent” with Cabinet Office policy on the use of private email accounts and there were “significant gaps” in how they were applied in practice by some “key individuals”.

The result had been to put at risk “the confidentiality, integrity and accessibility of the data exchanged”.

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The ICO said there was evidence that such practices were not confined to the DHSC and were “commonly seen” across government even before the pandemic began.

A Government spokesman said the ICO report made clear the correspondence channels used in the DHSC were lawful.

“Ministers and officials had to work at extraordinary pace during the pandemic and the use of modern technology was necessary to deliver important public services that saved lives – such as building a testing system from scratch and rolling out our world-leading vaccine programme,” the spokesman said.

“The Government is committed to accountability and transparency, and we are already undertaking a review into the policy for the use of non-corporate communication channels.

“We will carefully consider the ICO’s report, alongside recognising the ongoing benefits of using digital forms of communication.”