Boris Johnson: Deadline to hand over WhatsApps to Covid inquiry extendedon May 30, 2023 at 10:50 am

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The Covid inquiry is demanding the government provides unredacted versions of the messages by Thursday.

Boris JohnsonImage source, PA Media

A deadline for the government to hand over Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and notebooks to the Covid inquiry has been extended.

The Cabinet Office now has until Thursday to pass the material to the inquiry, rather than 16:00 BST today.

It has argued some of the material is not relevant to the inquiry.

But the inquiry says failing to release the unredacted material would be a criminal offence.

The former prime minister is among those who will give evidence to the inquiry, which is due to start hearings in two weeks.

The material includes 24 notebooks with contemporaneous notes, as well as WhatsApp messages between Mr Johnson and cabinet ministers, advisors and senior civil servants.

Announcing the extension, the inquiry revealed it had been told the Cabinet Office did not currently have the WhatsApp messages or notebooks in its possession.

If the department still does not have the material by Thursday, the inquiry said it must instead provide its correspondence with Mr Johnson over the issue.

Cabinet Office sources would not confirm which material they do not currently have.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said he had “no objection to disclosing the material to the inquiry”.

He said Mr Johnson had cooperated with his Cabinet Office legal team, who had “access” to all the material.

The BBC has been told the team visited Mr Johnson’s office to inspect the notebooks.

Mr Johnson has since stopped cooperating with his government-appointed lawyers and is appointing his own.

The spokesman said Mr Johnson wrote to the Cabinet Office last week saying he was not aware of any “instructions or requests from the Cabinet Office regarding this material”.

“The decision to challenge the inquiry’s position on redactions is for the Cabinet Office,” the spokesman added.

Downing Street has said some of the material is “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry, such as personal messages or content not related to the pandemic, and that the inquiry does not have the power to compel the government to disclose it.

It has raised concerns this could set an unwelcome precedent and have a “potential adverse impact on policy formulation in the future”.

However, crossbench peer Baroness Hallett, who is chairing the inquiry, said it was her role, not that of the government, to decide what was relevant.

The government has not officially said how it will respond but Whitehall sources have made clear ministers are confident in their position.

The government is concerned the unredacted messages would reveal personal information and breach privacy requirements.

It could lead to a legal battle between the government and inquiry, with the courts deciding what material is made available.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government was “carefully considering its position but it is confident in the approach that it’s taking”.

The inquiry is due to begin public hearings in two weeks’ time, starting with sessions on the country’s preparedness for a pandemic.

It aims to identify lessons from the government’s handling of the pandemic, looking at issues including the use of lockdowns, how decisions were made and the protection of the clinically vulnerable.

A volunteer from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group paints a heart on the National Covid Memorial Wall opposite the Palace of Westminster in central London,

Image source, PA Media

The former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake said the Cabinet Office’s position on Mr Johnson’s messages was “misguided”.

The former Labour adviser 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.”

He said it could set a “helpful precedent” if the inquiry won the right to release the material.

“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,” he added.

The Liberal Democrats said failing to hand over the material in full would be “yet another insult to bereaved families”.

The party’s health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said: “It looks like Rishi Sunak is too worried about upsetting Boris Johnson and his allies to do the right thing.”

Campaign groups representing bereaved families have said it is “outrageous” that the Cabinet Office thinks it can dictate what material can be released.

Labour has also called for the unredacted material to be released so “those responsible can be held to account”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said it was “fully committed” to its obligations to the inquiry and continued to provide all relevant material.

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