What’s going on with Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and the Covid inquiry?

What’s going on with Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and the Covid inquiry?

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We should all know by now that Tories and WhatsApp messages go together like Boris Johnson and political scandals. Except this time it isn’t former health secretary Matt Hancock’s texts which are in the spotlight, but those of the ex-prime minister - which the Covid inquiry is very keen to get its hands on.

So what’s going on?

Baroness Heather Hallett, a crossbench peer in the House of Lords and former Court of Appeal judge, is the independent chair of the Covid inquiry, and she wants to see full copies of Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages between January 2020 and February 2022.

And the list of recipients the inquiry wants to see correspondence between is lengthy. They include chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, then chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, then foreign secretary Liz Truss, then health secretary Matt Hancock and then chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Former top aide to Mr Johnson, Dominic Cummings (of Barnard Castle fame) is on the list too.

The chair is also after “copies of the 24 notebooks containing contemporaneous notes made by the former prime minister” in “clean unredacted form, save only for redactions applied for reasons of national security sensitivity”.

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She was previously given redacted versions with information the Cabinet Office considered “unambiguously irrelevant” removed, but Baroness Hallett wants to decide what’s relevant to the inquiry or not.

“The entire contents of the specified documents are of potential relevance to the lines of investigation being pursued by the inquiry.

“It may be necessary for reasons of context for me to understand the other (superficially unrelated) political matters with which they were concerned at the time,” she said.

There’s also the inquiry’s argument that the contents will shed light on “core political and administrative decision-making by the government” during the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s the Cabinet Office’s response?

After the inquiry made the legal request for the information – which includes messages from former adviser Henry Cook - under section 21of the Inquiries Act 2005 on 28 April, the Cabinet Office resisted the demand.

The Cabinet Office had until 4pm on Tuesday to provide the information, but a notice from the inquiry revealed investigators had been “informed that the Cabinet Office does not have in its possession either Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or Mr Johnson’s notebooks, as sought in the original section 21 notice.

The Independent reports it is understood Whitehall officials are also concerned about the disclosure of unredacted materials setting a precedent, as opposed to the department deciding what information should or shouldn’t be disclosed to the inquiry.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the government was acting “in a spirit of transparency and candour” and has co-operated with the inquiry by handing over “tens of thousands of documents”.

“With regard to the specific question at the moment, the government is carefully considering its position but is confident in the approach that it’s taking.”

The Cabinet Office had requested the initial deadline of 4pm on Tuesday be extended to 5 June, but this was rejected, with Baroness Hallett agreeing to a short extension to 4pm on Thursday.

And if the department fails to provide the documentation by this deadline, the inquiry chair has demanded a witness statement from a senior civil servant – along with a statement of truth – confirming the information isn’t held by the Cabinet Office.

Refusing to comply with a section 21 request could constitute a criminal offence and be punishable with a maximum fine of £1,000 or imprisonment for up to 51 weeks.

Responding to the question of whether there was a “cover-up”, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “No. We want to learn the lessons about the actions of the state during the pandemic, we want that to be done rigorously and candidly.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said in a statement: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 inquiry … We will continue to provide all relevant material to the inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting underway.”

What does Boris Johnson make of all this?

In a statement which suggests the spat is solely between the Cabinet Office and the Covid inquiry, a spokesman for the former prime minister said Mr Johnson “has no objection to disclosing material to the inquiry”.

“He has done so and will continue to do so. The decision to challenge the inquiry’s position on redactions is for the Cabinet Office.”

Mr Johnson’s team also said the MP sent a letter to the Cabinet Office that if they require “any action to be taken regarding this or any other material you must tell me in writing”.

“To date, our office is not aware of having received any instructions or requests from the Cabinet Office regarding this material,” he wrote.

What’s the wider reaction?

Downing Street has already been accused of a “cover-up” over its refusal to provide the information, with former civil service head Lord Kerslake telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a cover-up was going on to “save embarrassment of ministers”.

He said: “There’s also the Cabinet Office fighting for a principle of confidentiality. I have to say I think they’re misguided on this situation.

“I actually think it would set a helpful precedent if Lady Hallett prevailed in this fight about the information.

“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.”

Meanwhile, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner commented: “The fact the Covid inquiry has invoked legal powers to compel the handover of crucial documents in the face of legal battles and delaying tactics shows this is a government with much to hide.

“It now appears that vital evidence has gone missing. It must be found and handed over as requested if the whiff of a cover-up is to be avoided and bereaved families are to get the answers they deserve.”

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, said: “Failing to hand over the evidence in full, as requested by the chair of the Covid inquiry, would make a mockery of this whole process and would be yet another insult to bereaved families still waiting for justice.

“It looks like Rishi Sunak is too worried about upsetting Boris Johnson and his allies to do the right thing.

“The public deserve the whole truth about what went wrong. Vital evidence shouldn’t be kept secret just to spare ministers’ blushes.”

Wait a minute, isn’t Mr Johnson in a spot of bother over the Covid inquiry already?

Indeed he is.

After Mr Johnson granted lawyers access to his diary to aid his defence in the Covid inquiry, a “disclosure review” revealed information about friends visiting the then PM’s Chequers retreat in Buckinghamshire while coronavirus restrictions were in place.

Lawyers felt duty-bound to pass on the potential rule breaches to the Cabinet Office, who in turn felt duty-bound under the civil service code to pass this on to the Privileges Committee (which is investigating whether Mr Johnson misled parliament), the Metropolitan Police and Thames Valley Police.

Mr Johnson’s team blasted the referral as a “clearly politically motivated attempt to manufacture something out of nothing”, and the Tory politician has since cut ties with government lawyers.

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