The UK government faces accusations of attempting a “cover-up” as it seeks to prevent the COVID inquiry from accessing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks. Bereaved families and opposition parties have expressed their disapproval after the Cabinet Office announced its intention to bring a judicial review of Baroness Hallett’s order to release the documents. This move comes despite Johnson previously stating his willingness to comply with the inquiry chairwoman’s request and submit the material directly.
The Cabinet Office was set to provide the information by 4pm on Thursday but revealed, “with regret,” that it would be bringing the judicial review challenge. The Office emphasised its commitment to full cooperation with the inquiry before, during, and after the jurisdictional issue is resolved by the courts.
Broudie Jackson Canter, the legal practice representing the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, described the government’s action as demonstrating “utter disregard for the inquiry.” Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, accused Johnson of making “a desperate attempt to withhold evidence,” adding that the public deserves answers, not another cover-up. Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, called the government’s judicial review a “kick in the teeth” for the families who have lost loved ones to COVID during the pandemic.
The Cabinet Office claims that the documents and messages requested by the inquiry are “unambiguously irrelevant” and unrelated to the government’s handling of COVID. Legal proceedings have revealed that the WhatsApp messages provided by Johnson to the Cabinet Office only date back to May 2021, over a year after the pandemic began. Johnson had to change his mobile in 2021 when it was discovered that his number had been publicly available for 15 years.
The inquiry sent 150 questions to Johnson in February, including asking whether he stated that he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than order another lockdown in autumn 2020. Additionally, the inquiry questioned if Johnson received advice from the then Cabinet Secretary to remove Matt Hancock MP, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, from his position between January and July 2020.
A spokesperson for the inquiry announced that more information about the Cabinet Office’s challenge would be provided at a preliminary hearing on June 6.
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