Covid inquiry launches legal threat to Cabinet Office over refusal to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages
The Cabinet Office was accused on Wednesday of withholding evidence relating to Boris Johnson’s handling of the Covid pandemic.
Britain’s official Covid inquiry has threatened legal action for refusing to provide the then prime minister’s unedited WhatsApp messages from dozens of government figures, including Rishi Sunak, and 24 notebooks.
Baroness Heather Hallett, who is leading the investigation, said the content should not have been redacted before being given to her team.
She issued a Section 21 notice on April 28, demanding the full documents.
In a letter to the Cabinet Office, she warned that the government is “required to provide these documents to the UK Covid-19 inquiry within the set deadlines”.
“Failure to comply with this advice without a reasonable excuse is a criminal offence, punishable on summary conviction by a fine not exceeding £1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 51 weeks.”
The Cabinet Office argued that the documents requested were “sensitive” and that the investigation had “no right to them”.
“The higher the government minister, official or adviser targeted by the inquiry’s disclosure requests, the more likely their communications will address, in particular, political issues of particular sensitivity that are unambiguous unrelated to Covid-19 and which should not be disclosed outside government unless strictly necessary,” the Cabinet Office said in its response.
But Baroness Hallett said it was up to the public inquiry to decide what was relevant.
She requested unredacted WhatsApp messages from Mr Johnson and a senior Number 10 adviser between January 1, 2020 and February 24, 2022. Unredacted diaries from the former Prime Minister covering the same period were also requested .
It comes as Mr Johnson has been referred to the police by the Cabinet Office over fresh allegations he broke lockdown rules.
The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has severed ties with his government-appointed lawyers and is now seeking new legal representation.
In a letter to Baroness Hallett, Mr Johnson said the process ‘is well underway but is in the hands of the Cabinet Office to agree funding and other practical arrangements’.
“I have no control over the timing of this process,” he said. “I am unrepresented and my team of lawyers have been instructed not to provide me with any advice.
Regarding the Section 21 notice, he told the chair of the Covid Inquiry: ‘I have never seen the notice, I have not participated in the Cabinet Office representations under Article 21(4) and I am not allowed to see your decision before it is published.
“This is very detrimental to me as I believe your decision may directly and/or indirectly suggest that I failed to provide documents to the investigation.
“Any such suggestion or implication would be unfair and false. The notice was published before the deadline had passed for me to provide documents to the investigation. I have always sought to comply with all disclosure requests from the investigation and have already disclosed over 5,000 pages of documents and over 300 pages of emails.
More than 55,000 documents and 24 personal testimonies have also already been sent to investigators.
Downing Street said it was under no obligation to disclose “unambiguously irrelevant” material.