Boris Johnson fails to hand over mobile with crucial Covid WhatsApps before inquiry deadline

Device containing Covid-era messages up until May 2021 remains in former PM’s possession

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 10 July 2023 18:42 BST
Boris Johnson 'fooled all of us,' says his former Telegraph boss

Boris Johnson is still in possession of his old mobile phone containing crucial WhatsApp messages despite a strict deadline set by the Covid inquiry for all relevant material.

Rishi Sunak’s government was unable to hand over the former PM’s previous phone – which contains vital Covid-era messages up until May 2021 – by Monday’s deadline.

The Covid inquiry chair Baroness Hallett had given the Cabinet Office until 4pm to hand over Mr Johnson’s WhatsApps, notebooks and diaries after the government lost its legal challenge in a “humiliating” court defeat last week.

Both No 10 and the Cabinet Office pointed to Mr Johnson – saying he had not handed over the phone in time for the messages to be accessed and given to the inquiry.

However, Mr Johnson’s office said his team was still working with government security officials on how best to switch on the old phone – insisting he wanted to “cooperate fully” with the inquiry.

“Mr Johnson is cooperating with the government appointed technical consultants to carry out this process which is underway,” the former Tory leader’s spokesman told The Independent.

“He continues to cooperate fully with the inquiry and, as previously stated, has no objection to disclosing the material in question to the inquiry,” the spokesman added.

Mr Johnson’s old mobile – said to be known as “Phone 1” in Whitehall – has proved a thorny issue ever since a series of disputes between his camp and the Sunak government blew up earlier this year.

He was forced to turn the device off and switch to a new mobile in May 2021 after a security breach: it emerged his number had been freely available online for 15 years.

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson have been at odds over Covid inquiry

The Independent understands that Mr Johnson’s representatives and the Cabinet Office are still discussing how the phone should be safely switched on and how the data should be extracted.

Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said “all requisite material has been handed over” before the 4pm deadline – pointing out that the inquiry’s section 21 order asked for material that was in the government’s possession.

“It’s not in our possession, so it’s not for us to hand over,” he said. “We are seeking to assist the inquiry.”

A Cabinet Office source also said the phone was still in Mr Johnson’s possession, but government officials were continuing to support him in trying to access the material.

Government solicitor Parm Sahota wrote to the inquiry last month to say the Cabinet Office “continues to work with security partners and Mr Johnson’s representatives to assess the security issues in relation to that device”.

The government had fought the request from inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett to release unredacted documents – arguing it should not have to hand over material that is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

But the argument was dismissed by High Court judges last week, who said the fact an order for material would produce “some irrelevant documents” did not “invalidate” it or mean it “cannot be lawfully exercised”.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer told the inquiry on Monday that Brexit took staff away from pandemic preparedness. “Resources were diverted to EU-exit planning,” he told the inquiry.

Sir Michael McBride said the work of the Department of Health was also impacted by the lack of a Stormont executive in Belfast between 2017 and 2020.

Former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster is set to appear on Tuesday, and former deputy first minister and former health minister Michelle O’Neill is to attend on Wednesday.

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