Boris Johnson ‘more than happy’ to hand over material to Covid inquiry amid legal stand-off

1 June 2023, 17:27 | Updated: 2 June 2023, 07:20

The government has launched legal action over the Covid inquiry
The government has launched legal action over the Covid inquiry. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Chris Samuel

Boris Johnson has said he is "more than happy" to hand over his unredacted WhatsApp messages directly to the Covid inquiry as the Government prepares a legal challenge over the probe's order to release them.

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Mr Johnson's comments come after department told the Covid inquiry it is seeking a judicial review of its chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s order to release the former prime minister's WhatsApp messages, diaries and notebooks.

It was given a deadline of 4pm on Thursday to provide messages between Mr Johnson and his advisers during the pandemic, as well as his notebooks and diaries.

But the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for supporting the PM and the Cabinet, has so far refused to hand over some of the documents, arguing that is has no duty to share "unambiguously irrelevant" material.

Baroness Hallett has demanded that the government hand them over without any amendments.

On Friday Former Justice Secretary Sir Robert Buckland told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast he believed the government's judicial review was "a bit of a fool's errand."

The top Tory said it was "wasting time" which was not fair on the victims and relatives of those who died during the pandemic.

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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".    

In response to the government's latest move, Mr Johnson wrote a letter of his own to Baroness Hallett saying he is "more than happy" to hand over unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks to the Covid Inquiry.

Boris Johnson has said he is "more than happy" to hand the unredacted materials demanded straight to the Covid inquiry
Boris Johnson has said he is "more than happy" to hand the unredacted materials demanded straight to the Covid inquiry. Picture: Getty

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."

Boris Johnson's call for the documents he submitted to the Cabinet Office to be handed over to the inquiry put pressure on Rishi Sunak to provide the requested material
Boris Johnson's call for the information he submitted to the Cabinet Office to be handed over to the inquiry put pressure on Rishi Sunak to provide the requested material. Picture: Getty

It followed a source close to the former PM saying that Mr Johnson has "absolutely no objection whatsoever" to providing information from an old mobile phone, after the Cabinet Office said that the material that he handed over to it only covers the period from May 2021, when he acquired a new phone due to a security breach the month before.

Announcing the legal action today, the Cabinet office said: "The Cabinet Office has today sought leave to bring a judicial review.

"We do so with regret and with an assurance that we will continue to co-operate fully with the inquiry before, during and after the jurisdictional issue in question is determined by the courts, specifically whether the inquiry has the power to compel production of documents and messages which are unambiguously irrelevant to the inquiry's work, including personal communications and matters unconnected to the Government's handling of Covid.    

"We consider there to be important issues of principle at stake here, affecting both the rights of individuals and the proper conduct of government. The request for unambiguously irrelevant material goes beyond the powers of the inquiry.    

Baroness Hallett has demanded that the material be handed over without any amendments.
Baroness Hallett has demanded that the material be handed over without any amendments. Picture: Alamy

"Individuals, junior officials, current and former ministers and departments should not be required to provide material that is irrelevant to the inquiry's work. It represents an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government.    

"It also represents an intrusion into their legitimate expectations of privacy and protection of their personal information."

On Thursday afternoon the inquiry confirmed that it had received a response from the department in relation to section 21 notice it had issued regarding the documents.

It said in a statement: "At 4pm today the chair of the UK COVID public inquiry was served a copy of a claim form by the Cabinet Office seeking to commence judicial review proceedings against the chair's ruling of 22 May 2023."

The inquiry added that further information will be given at a preliminary hearing at 10.30am on June 6.

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On Wednesday afternoon Mr Johnson's team said that all the information the inquiry requested had been given to the Cabinet Office.

His spokesperson said the former PM wanted the department to "urgently" hand over the material, which piled pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to provide the documents.

"While Mr Johnson understands the government's position, and does not seek to contradict it, he is perfectly happy for the Inquiry to have access to this material in whatever form it requires," his spokesperson said.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner branded the legal challenge 'smoke and mirrors tactics'
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner branded the legal challenge 'smoke and mirrors tactics'. Picture: Getty

"Mr Johnson cooperated with the Inquiry in full from the beginning of this process and continues to do so. Indeed, he established the Inquiry. He looks forward to continuing to assist the Inquiry with its important work."

In response to the judicial review, Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "While the rest of the country is focused on the cost-of-living crisis, Rishi Sunak hopelessly distracted with legal ploys to obstruct the Covid Inquiry in a desperate attempt to withhold evidence.

"After thirteen years of Tory scandal, these latest smoke and mirror tactics serve only to undermine the Covid Inquiry. The public deserve answers, not another cover-up.

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"Instead of digging himself further into a hole by pursuing doomed legal battles to conceal the truth, Rishi Sunak must comply with the Covid Inquiry's requests for evidence in full. There can be no more excuses."

Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats Daisy Cooper branded the government's decision to launch legal challenge a "kick in the teeth" for bereaved families who have "already waiting far too long for answers."

"Rishi Sunak's promise to govern with integrity and accountability has been left in tatters," she said.

"The government is delaying the inquiry even further and clogging up court time, all to prevent Sunak and his Conservative colleagues from having to release their messages."

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