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Boris Johnson fails to hand over crucial WhatsApps

Cabinet Office says ex-PM has only provided info from May 2021 and later

Jon Stone,Adam Forrest
Friday 02 June 2023 08:38 BST
Sunak's court battle with Covid inquiry 'fool's errand', says ex-Tory minister

Boris Johnson is yet to hand over any WhatsApp messages showing discussions he had during the 2020 Covid lockdowns, the government has said.

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry wants to see WhatsApps messages and notebooks kept by the former prime minister to build a picture of how decisions were taken in government.

But the former PM has only handed over a message archive dating to May 2021 or later, according to a witness statement published by the Cabinet Office on Thursday and sent to the inquiry.

Mr Johnson is said to have the messages from before May 2021 on a different phone, which he no longer uses for security reasons. He was forced to change it when it emerged his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.

It comes after the Cabinet Office on Thursday announced that it would be launching a legal challenge against the inquiry’s request for the messages.

Rishi Sunak was accused by Labour and the Liberal Democrats of a “cover-up” and a “cowardly” attempt to obstruct the inquiry, while former civil service chief Robert Kerslake told The Independent: “They are in a hole and they should stop digging.”

A statement from the senior civil servant in charge of the government’s response to the inquiry said the material passed to the Cabinet Office contained “no WhatsApp communications before May 2021”.

Senior civil servant Ellie Nicholson said Mr Johnson’s lawyers had not provided a “substantive response” to a request for his old mobile phone, which would contain material from the start of the Covid crisis in early 2020 through to the following spring.

The Cabinet Office said it believes the former PM still “has possession” of his previous phone.

Mr Johnson’s spokesman said the old phone has not been turned on since the April 2021 security breach, when it emerged that the one he was using had been publicly available online for 15 years. 

The ex-PM has now written to the Cabinet Office to ask if technical support can be given so messages can be retrieved without compromising security.

Boris Johnson only handed over messages to the Covid inquiry from 2021 or later (PA Wire)

Adding to the chaos, Mr Johnson wrote to the inquiry chair Baroness Hallett on Thursday to say he was “more than happy” to hand over unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks directly to the inquiry.

The former Tory leader told the inquiry he agreed with the Cabinet Office position “that in principle, advice to ministers should not be made public”.

But he added: “I see no reason why the inquiry should not be able to satisfy itself about the contents of my own WhatsApps and notebooks, and to check the relevant WhatsApp conversations (about 40 of them) for anything that it deems relevant to the Covid inquiry.”

It also emerged that Mr Johnson initially refused a request by the Cabinet Office to move his notebooks to a “secure location” in April. The Cabinet Office said it would share some of Mr Johnson’s notebook material within days – but insisted they needed to be redacted to exclude “national security sensitivities and unambiguously irrelevant material”.

Ms Nicholson said the Cabinet Office had received 300 pages’ worth of Mr Johnson’s post-May 2021 WhatsApp messages on Wednesday, and was still reviewing that material “for national security sensitivities and unambiguously irrelevant material” in order to redact it.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak at odds over release of Covid-related material (Getty)

Despite efforts to hash out a compromise, the government and the Covid Inquiry team appear destined to argue the mess out in court.

The Cabinet Office will seek a judicial review of Baroness Hallett’s demand to release the WhatsApp messages and notebooks. The department said it was bringing the legal challenge “with regret”, but insisted that “important issues of principle” were at stake.

Science minister George Freeman admitted on Thursday night that the government will likely lose its legal challenge.

Appearing on BBC Question Time, Mr Freeman insisted the decision to launch judicial review proceedings was not a “cynical waste of time” – but admitted he thought the prospect of success unlikely.

“I think personally it’s quite likely that the courts will rule that Baroness Hallett will decide what evidence, but I think it’s a point worth testing,” he told the audience.

Science minister George Freeman admitted government likely to lose (PA Archive)

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland described the government’s judicial review as a “fool’s errand” – saying Lady Hallett “has the power to make a decision as to what she wants to see”.

The ex-cabinet minister told LBC: “This is wasting time – and time is not what the victims and those affected by the Covid crisis will want to see wasted.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, accused Mr Sunak of being “hopelessly distracted with legal ploys to obstruct the Covid inquiry in a desperate attempt to withhold evidence”.

Accusing him of a “cover-up”, she added: “Instead of digging himself further into a hole by pursuing doomed legal battles to conceal the truth, Rishi Sunak must comply with the Covid inquiry’s requests for evidence in full.”

The Liberal Democrats said the legal action was a “cowardly attempt to obstruct a vital public inquiry” and a “kick in the teeth for bereaved families”.

Rivka Gottlieb, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said it was “absolutely obscene that the Cabinet Office is going to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on suing its own public inquiry into being unable to access critical evidence”.

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