In an unprecedented move, the government is preparing to launch a legal challenge to halt the Covid inquiry’s request for access to Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and related documents. The authorities failed to meet the 16:00 deadline for disclosing communications between the Prime Minister and his advisors during the pandemic, as well as his diaries and notebooks.
This marks the first time a government has taken legal action against an inquiry that it established. However, Mr. Johnson has expressed his willingness to provide the unredacted material if specifically requested. In a letter addressed to Baroness Hallett, the chair of the Covid inquiry, he stated, “If you wish to have this material forthwith, please let me know where and how you wish me to send it to you.”
The involvement of Mr. Johnson’s mobile phone, which experienced a security breach during a crucial period in the pandemic, has further complicated matters. A spokesperson for the former prime minister revealed that the phone has remained switched off since the breach occurred. Notably, it was disclosed in April 2021 that Mr. Johnson’s mobile number had been discoverable online for over 15 years. The contents of this particular phone have not yet been reviewed by the Covid inquiry, according to BBC reports.
To address concerns surrounding security, Mr. Johnson has sent a letter to the Cabinet Office requesting support in retrieving the content without compromising its integrity. Meanwhile, the government has declined to disclose certain materials, arguing their irrelevance to the inquiry’s scope. In contrast, Baroness Hallett, leading the inquiry, asserts that determining relevance is within her purview. She believes reviewing the messages is crucial to understanding how the government managed the pandemic.
The government contends that complying with the inquiry’s request would set a precedent that could hinder future discussions of policy matters among ministers. The Cabinet Office, acting on behalf of the government, plans to seek a judicial review to determine whether the inquiry has overstepped its legal authority in demanding evidence.
Elkan Abrahamson, the legal representative for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, expressed concerns about the Cabinet Office’s approach, stating, “The Cabinet Office is showing utter disregard for the inquiry in maintaining their belief that they are the higher power and arbiter of what is relevant material and what is not. It raises questions about the integrity of the inquiry and how open and transparent it will be if the chair is unable to see all of the material.”
The ongoing dispute over access to Covid-related WhatsApp messages has drawn criticism from opposition parties, who accuse Rishi Sunak’s government of obstructing the inquiry. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, labeled the government’s actions “smoke-and-mirror tactics” that undermine the Covid Inquiry. The Liberal Democrats characterized the legal challenge as “a kick in the teeth for bereaved families who’ve already waited far too long for answers.”
Despite calls from some senior Conservative MPs to avoid a protracted legal battle with the inquiry, the government remains resolute. The Cabinet Office cites the material’s irrelevance to the inquiry’s work as its primary justification for legal action. The “irrelevant material” includes references to personal and family matters, such as illnesses and disciplinary issues, as well as unrelated personal comments about specific individuals.
Significantly, the government’s legal challenge comes just a day after Mr. Johnson claimed to have provided the Cabinet Office with all the requested WhatsApp messages and notebooks, urging them to submit the material to the inquiry without redactions. He pledged to do the same himself “if asked.” However, the material submitted by Mr. Johnson did not include messages sent prior to May 2021, as he had changed phones following the security breach. The Cabinet Office’s director clarified this situation in a statement to the inquiry.
The inquiry specifically sought access to Mr. Johnson’s WhatsApp messages from January 1, 2020, to February 24, 2022.