Government faces legal action over unredacted Covid inquiry material

The Covid inquiry has given the UK government until 4pm to provide unredacted messages and notebooks, or face potential legal action. The inquiry seeks access to various communications between Boris Johnson and his advisers during the pandemic, as well as his diaries and notebooks. The government has resisted disclosing some of the material, claiming it is not relevant to the inquiry’s work. However, the inquiry’s chair argues that determining relevance is her responsibility.

Established in May 2021, the inquiry is investigating the government’s pandemic response and is set to begin public hearings in two weeks. This standoff may result in a legal battle between the inquiry and the Cabinet Office, the government department that supports the prime minister. Johnson has encouraged the Cabinet Office to submit the material to the inquiry without redactions, stating that he would do so himself “if asked.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the former prime minister revealed that he had provided all the documents to the department, adding that it had “access” to the material for several months. The Cabinet Office, which initially informed the inquiry that it didn’t possess all the WhatsApp messages or notebooks, later stated that officials were assessing them.

The inquiry has requested WhatsApp messages from Johnson’s devices, originating from a group chat established to discuss the pandemic response. Additionally, it seeks access to his WhatsApp exchanges with various politicians, including his successor Rishi Sunak, and several civil servants, such as the UK’s top civil servant Simon Case. The inquiry has also requested the former prime minister’s diaries and 24 notebooks containing contemporaneous notes.

Challenging the request, the Cabinet Office argued that the WhatsApp threads contained messages “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry’s scope, including discussions about “entirely separate” policy areas, unrelated diary arrangements, disciplinary matters, and “comments of a personal nature” about individuals. The Cabinet Office added that disclosing the messages could violate individuals’ privacy rights and hinder ministers’ ability to discuss policy matters in the future.

Nonetheless, Baroness Hallett, the crossbench peer chairing the inquiry, stated that the requested information was “potentially relevant” to investigating government decision-making. She argued that examining “superficially unrelated” political matters might be necessary to comprehend the broader context of decisions made. She disclosed that material redacted by the Cabinet Office includes discussions about UK and Scottish government relations and the appropriate use of WhatsApp by ministers for government policy discussions.

Baroness Hallett has previously cautioned that failing to provide the requested material could constitute a criminal offence. The Cabinet Office has questioned the inquiry’s authority to request “entirely personal” WhatsApp messages and is reportedly considering seeking a judge’s review of the legality of these demands. This issue is viewed as a litmus test of public inquiries’ ability to access WhatsApp messages, which have become an increasingly popular means of communication within Westminster in recent years.

However, some senior Conservative MPs have called for the government to back down to avoid a lengthy legal confrontation. William Wragg, chairman of a parliamentary committee on constitutional affairs, said on Wednesday: “If the inquiry requests documents and info – then whoever it has asked should comply.”

There has been tension between Sunak’s government and Johnson over the Cabinet Office’s decision to refer the latter to police for further potential Covid rule breaches during the pandemic. The Cabinet Office stated that it made the referral following a review of Johnson’s official diary by government lawyers as part of the Covid inquiry. The former prime minister has dismissed the allegations of any breaches as a “politically motivated stitch-up.”

World News

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Jamie Cartwright

Jamie is a keen traveler, writer, and (English) teacher. A few years after finishing school in the East Mids, UK, he went traveling around South America and Asia. Several teaching and writing jobs, he found himself at The Thaiger where he mostly covers international news and events.