Covid inquiry legal battle looms over Johnson WhatsApp requests

Ministers could be set for a legal row with the Covid Inquiry over the requested release of unredacted WhatsApp messages belonging to Boris Johnson.

Dominic McGrath
Tuesday 30 May 2023 08:24 BST
Unredacted messages and diaries of the former prime minister are at the centre of a legal row between the Cabinet Office and Covid inquiry (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Unredacted messages and diaries of the former prime minister are at the centre of a legal row between the Cabinet Office and Covid inquiry (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)

Ministers could be set for a legal battle with the Covid-19 inquiry over the requested release of unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries belonging to Boris Johnson.

The Cabinet Office has until 4pm on Tuesday to respond to the request from Lady Hallett’s official inquiry.

There has so far been little sign that ministers are set to shift from the position that the Government has no duty to disclose “unambiguously irrelevant” material.

The row was sparked by a legal request sent by the inquiry on April 28 for a number of materials, including unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries belonging to the former prime minister between January 2020 and February 2022.

Former head of the Civil Service Lord Kerslake told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers. But there’s also the Cabinet Office fighting for a principle of confidentiality.

“I have to say I think they’re misguided on this situation. I actually think it would set a helpful precedent if Lady Hallett prevailed in this fight about the information.

“We are in a bit of a mess at the moment, we don’t really know whether WhatsApp’s been used as a decision-making tool or, indeed, as just an information-sharing device.”

In May the Cabinet Office pushed back against the request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and which also applies to messages from former adviser Henry Cook.

In a ruling last week, Lady Hallett rejected the argument that the inquiry’s request was unlawful and claimed that the Cabinet Office had “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation”.

Refusing to comply with the request would lead to a legal clash with the official inquiry, raising the possibility of ministers seeking a judicial review of the probe’s powers.

It comes just weeks before the first public evidence sessions are expected to be held.

The Cabinet Office has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.

But Lady Hallett, in last week’s ruling, stressed that the requested documentation was of “potential relevance” to the inquiry’s “lines of investigation”.

She said: “I may also be required to investigate the personal commitments of ministers and other decision-makers during the time in question.”

“There is, for example, well-established public concern as to the degree of attention given to the emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020 by the then Prime Minister.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 inquiry.

“As such, extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.

“We will continue to provide all relevant material to the inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting under way.”

According to the notice seeking the unredacted messages, the inquiry is requesting conversations between Mr Johnson and a host of government figures, civil servants and officials.

The list includes England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, as well as then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

Messages with then-foreign secretary Liz Truss and then-health secretary Matt Hancock are also requested, as well as with former top aide Dominic Cummings and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak.

The inquiry had also asked for “copies of the 24 notebooks containing contemporaneous notes made by the former prime minister” in “clean unredacted form, save only for any redactions applied for reasons of national security sensitivity”.

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said that “failing to hand over the evidence in full, as requested by the chair of the Covid inquiry, would make a mockery of this whole process and would be yet another insult to bereaved families still waiting for justice”.

“It looks like Rishi Sunak is too worried about upsetting Boris Johnson and his allies to do the right thing.

“The public deserve the whole truth about what went wrong. Vital evidence shouldn’t be kept secret just to spare ministers’ blushes.”

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in