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The Covid Inquiry is already riddled with division and even the venue is under dispute!
6 June 2023, 16:24 | Updated: 6 June 2023, 16:32
An Inquiry already riddled with division, that even the venue is under dispute! It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.
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The Module 2 Preliminary Covid-19 Inquiry hearing – aka what does Baroness Hallett make of ‘WhatsApp-gate’ – got off to a slow start today.
The no-nonsense, tough-talking Lady Hallett - who is the chair of proceedings - started with a stern warning to the government “as has been reported in the media, an issue has arisen between the Inquiry & Cabinet Office as to who decides what is relevant". She is very clear she will decide… I wouldn’t mess with her.
She was supported by Hugo Keith KC, the Counsel to the Inquiry, who acted as the strict headmaster orchestrating proceedings.
We already know about the row between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry, step forward another government department. The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office. Mr Keith was furious saying that they were also not giving over their unredacted communications – critical messages between two special advisers have been censored – and the inquiry is not happy.
The Foreign Office is now in the Inquiry’s bad books. You may think it unsurprising that two government departments are taking a similar approach – isn’t this how the whole government will act? Apparently not.
Some praise for, erm, Matt Hancock. Mr Keith said the Health Department has given over much more extensive communication, including completely unredacted messages from the former Health Secretary.
But the rows do not stop there. Yet another area of disagreement has arisen. This time over messages, not over WhatsApp, nor text messages, not even by Facebook message – but by Google Spaces.
The Cabinet Office has admitted this was a “forum for key individuals to communicate”, and the Cabinet Office - similar to WhatsApp – do not want to hand over this correspondence unredacted.
Elsewhere Boris Johnson and Baroness Hallett are expected to get to together this week to go through his old phone – don’t expect to see them in your local coffee shop though, they will instead be in a ‘private location’.
The farce continues with regards to Boris Johnson’s ‘old phone’ from before May 2021. Mr Keith – the strict headmaster - says "neither Mr Johnson nor the inquiry have the technical expertise to ensure the contents of the phone can be downloaded safely and properly" – so there could be yet more delay as the phone is handed over to a tech boffin in government to sort out.
There was even consternation about the venue. Baroness Hallett admitted that Dorland House in Paddington wasn’t perfect, but that there wasn’t much choice – and that she had to accommodate the needs of the taxpayer along with the importance of the inquiry – before adding she may have to get the builders into renovate it over the summer.
The Inquiry today largely achieved their aims, to fire a warning shot to the government that they are the ones in charge of proceedings. Not all of it will be blockbuster, there will be further twists and turns along the way.
But the spectacle of a government taking legal action against its own inquiry, along with some of the headline political figures announced who will be participating, promises to make the over-three-year-long inquiry crucial viewing.