'I decide what is relevant', Covid inquiry chairwoman insists amid Boris Johnson WhatsApp row

6 June 2023, 14:21 | Updated: 6 June 2023, 15:05

Covid Inquiry Chair Baroness Hallett (L) has said she calls the shots
Covid Inquiry Chair Baroness Hallett (L) has said she calls the shots. Picture: PA

By Henry Riley and Kieran Kelly

The chairwoman of the Covid inquiry has insisted she decides what is 'relevant' following the government's legal challenge against her request for Boris Johnson's unredacted messages and notebooks.

Speaking on Tuesday, Baroness Hallett confirmed that "an issue has arisen between the inquiry & Cabinet Office as to who decides what is relevant".

Rishi Sunak's government decided last week to take its own Covid inquiry to court amid concerns over "unambiguously irrelevant" material being disclosed to the inquiry.

"I issued a notice under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 20025 – making it clear that in my view it is for inquiry chair to decide what is relevant or potentially relevant," Baroness Hallett said.

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Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty

On Thursday, the Cabinet Office, in a letter to the inquiry, said it was bringing a judicial review challenge "with regret" but that there were "important issues of principle at stake".

One former Cabinet minister told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast that the government's judicial review was "a bit of a fool's errand".

Former Justice Secretary Sir Robert Buckland said it was "wasting time", saying it was unfair on the victims and relatives of those who died during the pandemic.

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Meanwhile, the former PM Mr Johnson last week said he is "more than happy" to hand over his unredacted WhatsApp messages directly to the Covid inquiry.

He wrote: "This is of course without prejudice to the Judicial Review that the Government has now launched. I agree with the Cabinet Office position that in principle advice to ministers should not be made public.

"That is clearly essential for the effective running of the country and for the impartiality of the civil service.

"I am simply making a practical point: that I see no reason why the inquiry should not be able to satisfy itself about the contents of my own Whatsapps (sic) and notebooks, and to check the relevant Whatsapp (sic) conversations (about 40 of them) for anything that it deems relevant to the Covid inquiry.

"If you wish to have this material forthwith, please let me know where and how you wish me to send it to you."

Today, Hugo Keith KC - counsel to the inquiry - confirmed that WhatsApp messages had been sent to the inquiry by Mr Johnson.

Mr Keith said: "We have received WhatsApp material from Mr Johnson and from 2 other individuals - and all that material has had redactions applied to some of the content."

The inquiry also revealed today that the Foreign Office had sent over "potentially relevant" material with "extensive redactions".

Mr Keith continued: "May we make clear, we expect them [Foreign Office] to provide unredacted WhatsApp material without delay".

The Department of Health and Social Care "by contrast" has provided "much fuller disclosure", including WhatsApps from former health secretary Matt Hancock.

Mr Keith invited the Foreign and Cabinet offices to "pay close regard to position adopted by the DHSC".

An inspection of Mr Johnson's unredacted WhatsApps is expected to take place this week.