Exclusive: GCHQ cell giving Boris Johnson ‘real-time’ intelligence to tackle Covid

GCHQ has set up a cell in Downing Street to provide Boris Johnson with real-time intelligence to combat the "emerging and changing threat" posed by Covid-19, The Telegraph can disclose.

The Government’s intelligence-gathering and surveillance agency has deployed experts to work inside the Cabinet Office to sift through huge amounts of big data in an effort to give Mr Johnson the most up-to-date information on the spread of the virus.

GCHQ analysts have been given access to mobile phone data to track the public’s movements during the national lockdown. The up-to-the-minute reports on compliance are passed to the Prime Minister, who must decide in a little over a fortnight whether to end the lockdown on December 2.

The intelligence analysts have also been examining Google and other internet search engine data on employment, a key indicator of the job market.

The data – providing billions of pieces of information on job searches across the country – provides instant reporting on the potential, catastrophic threat to employment caused by Covid more quickly than official figures compiled by the Office for National Statistics.

It is understood the job data examined by the GCHQ team may have been a contributory factor in the decision to extend the furlough scheme – under which the Government pays 80 per cent of the wages of those unable to work – until next year.

Google holiday search data has also been subjected to extensive sifting, building up a picture of changing attitudes to travel that helps guide policies such as forcing returning holidaymakers to self-isolate.

The GCHQ cell also worked on the NHS Test and Trace app, making sure sensitive data remained secure and anonymised, preventing foreign hostile states from trying to hack into the app.

The deployment of the intelligence agency, embedded in the Cabinet Office, is seen as critical in providing non-partisan, independent data for Mr Johnson on which to base key decisions such as the reintroduction of lockdown.

His Government has threatened to tear itself apart over the competing interests of the Department of Health and Social Care, which has pushed for the toughest restrictions, and the Treasury, which has urged the Prime Minister to keep the economy going and prevent catastrophic job losses.

Reports provided by the GCHQ cell have helped the Prime Minister "pivot as needed", The Telegraph understands, by filtering vast data sets being pumped out by an array of public bodies that includes public health and economic data and in theory enabling Mr Johnson to focus on the key information. 

The team has been examining Google search data that allows it to analyse public behaviour, with "daily highlights" passed to Number 10 to enable "better policy-making".

The UK’s intelligence agencies are tasked with responding to "changing and emerging threats" – usually applied to rogue nations and terrorist organisations – but that remit has been extended to tackling coronavirus. MI5 recently disclosed that it was investigating how the virus spreads, based on work at the Government’s chemical weapons laboratory at Porton Down, in Wiltshire.

GCHQ’s deployment into the heart of Government will have been aided by the appointment in September of Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service. Mr Case had previously worked for GCHQ as director of strategy in 2015.

Jeremy Fleming, GCHQ’s director, said in a rare public appearance in the summer that his agency, which has its headquarters in Cheltenham, was involved in the Government’s response to the Covid pandemic, without going into detail.

Jeremy Fleming, the GCHQ director, said data analysis had a role to play in fighting Covid 

Credit: Reuters 

He told the Cheltenham Science Festival: "We’ve lent support and data science support more broadly across Government. I’m blessed with nearly 10,000 people in GCHQ… many of them with very strong technical backgrounds. They have a role to play more broadly in projecting our data science skills and our technology skills, including across Government, where it’s required. So, we’ve lent in to help on that."

He said "governments all over the world" were having to "think really hard about the sorts of data" that is helpful in fighting the pandemic and added that "from my perspective, data-based policy-making, data-based governance, data-based protection, those are really positive steps forward".

The Telegraph has been told that the analyses being carried out by GCHQ inside the Cabinet Office do not draw on spying capabilities developed by the agency. "This is not GCHQ infrastructure being used, only staff seconded to the Cabinet Office," said a Whitehall source.

Mr Johnson has been criticised for using out-of-date information on Covid-19 death scenarios to justify the second national lockdown. But it raises the possibility that he has also been in possession of more up-to-date information provided by the GCHQ team that could not be shared with the public.

The use of Google data to examine public behaviour may explain the presence of Demis Hassabis, a co–founder of Google’s artificial intelligence division at an early meeting of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies meeting in March. 

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