The government compiled a dossier of information on a doctor who fought for COVID planning papers.
by Tommy Greene
The government gathered 18 months’ worth of information on an NHS doctor who fought for the release of COVID-19 planning documents that it wanted to keep secret, openDemocracy can reveal.
Moosa Qureshi, a haemotologist at NHS hospitals in London and Kent, has been working to force ministers to publish nearly a dozen pandemic preparedness exercises since early 2020.
But his pursuit of transparency has resulted in him being extensively profiled by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which has refused to say what information it has gathered on the medic.
Campaigners have warned that Qureshi’s case is part of a “worrying” wider trend of government departments compiling dossiers on their critics.
In May 2020, Qureshi used Freedom of Information (FOI) laws to ask for the full findings of Exercise Cygnus, a 2016 government simulation of a flu outbreak that was designed to assess how prepared the UK was for a viral pandemic.
Qureshi hoped to uncover to what extent Boris Johnson’s government had used the findings to inform its decision-making in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic – and, crucially, whether it had overlooked some of Cygnus’s key recommendations.
The government fought the release of some of this information for more than a year. It finally handed over the triage and social care papers in June 2021, when ordered to do so by then-information commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who said they were of overwhelming public interest as they related to “literally life and death decisions”.
When Qureshi finally obtained the withheld papers, it became apparent that political leaders had not shared plans or guidance for healthcare rationing with NHS staff when hospitals became overwhelmed.
By then, more than 100,000 people in the UK had already died of COVID-19. “The opportunity for democratic scrutiny and shared learning had been squandered,” Qureshi told openDemocracy.
Frustrated by the government’s stonewalling, Qureshi submitted a Subject Access Request (SAR) to the DHSC in May 2021 to find out whether staff had been discussing his FOIs.
An individual can use an SAR to force an organisation to hand over any information it holds on them, and declare how it obtained the data, how it is being used, and with whom it has been shared.
Organisations should respond to these requests within one month of them being made.
Yet after more than a year of delays, the DHSC told Qureshi that his SAR could not be completed because the sheer volume of information the department had collected on him meant it would take one staff member more than a year and a half to sort through.
Writing to Qureshi, a DHSC official said:
“In your particular case, we have estimated that the identification, collation, and review of all records held that may include personal data related to you would take approximately 79 weeks of staff time, which is based on a single full-time member of staff working 37.5 hours per week in order to fulfil your Subject Access [Request].”
Dr Moosa Qureshi still does not know what information the government has gathered on him.
Matt Fowler, who co-founded the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group, described the government’s efforts to avoid handing over information to Qureshi as “a drain on resources that could have been better spent elsewhere.”
He said the government has also “blocked and delayed” his group’s efforts for pandemic accountability, adding: “It makes me wonder whether they’ve got a file on me somewhere and what information they hold on me.”
“Our experiences and the evidence we've seen points towards [similar] government obfuscation and efforts to block justice. It’s almost Orwellian, in some ways.
“This has been a daily fight for more than three years, fast approaching four now. It's been a constant battle with the government over the [release of information and securing a start date for the COVID inquiry.”
Screened by Clearing House
In 2021, a separate FOI request by openDemocracy journalist Jenna Corderoy found that Qureshi’s initial request to DHSC had been referred to Clearing House, a shadowy unit in the Cabinet Office that screened information requests and policed disclosures.
Qureshi said he was “shocked” to learn that his request was being screened by the unit, which was disbanded in December 2022 after extensive investigations by openDemocracy and has since been “redesigned”, according to the government.
Jake Hurfurt, the head of research and investigations at Big Brother Watch, said:
“The government’s gathering of vast quantities of data on opponents and activists is worrying.
“From the Cabinet Office’s FOI Clearing House to Whitehall's counter ‘disinformation’ units, the government seems to have a habit of collating dossiers on its critics, raising serious questions about privacy and the use of political surveillance.
“Instead of putting together bulging files on people who criticise them, officials should spend time addressing real problems.”
The Cabinet Office has denied collating dossiers, saying: “At no stage in this process do we create dossiers on members of the public and it would be completely wrong to claim otherwise.”
Carolin Ott is a solicitor at Leigh Day who has represented Qureshi in his battles with the government over pandemic disclosures and personal data.
She told openDemocracy that “the approach by a number of government bodies has been characterised by a lack of clarity and obfuscation.”
The DHSC has since told Qureshi’s legal team that it “anticipated that [it] did not hold any relevant personal data other than that already available to Dr Qureshi.”
The department would not say how it came to this conclusion, or whether a thorough search was involved.
It added that it had been ordered by the ICO to review its data handling processes to “ensure that we can avoid any repeat of what has happened in this case.”
The DHSC declined to respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment, while a Cabinet Office spokesperson said that the government “is committed to transparency.”
“That is why, despite receiving thousands of FOI requests every month, the vast majority are responded to on time. We also proactively publish more information outside of the Freedom of Information Act than ever before.
“Because of its role at the centre of government, the Cabinet Office handles some of the most complex and sensitive issues, which means that large numbers of requests are received for information which is exempt under the act.
“Where requests are refused, reasons can include national security implications, protecting personal information and requests where the relevant information has already been published. In some complex cases, extra time is needed for these considerations to be made.”