Lawyers representing the Cabinet Office have warned the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that the WhatsApp messages submitted by former prime minister Boris Johnson are incomplete because more than a year’s worth of communications are missing.
Amid the row between the government and the public inquiry over demands for full disclosure of documents – irrespective of whether the Cabinet Office believes them to be “relevant”– Johnson’s team this week announced the former PM had handed “all” requested material to 70 Whitehall.
The Cabinet Office confirmed yesterday that it is seeking a judicial review of the breadth of the inquiry's demands for information, arguing much of its requests relate to “irrelevant” information and represent an “unwarranted intrusion” into the work of government.
Johnson has since said he will supply the material to the inquiry panel “in unredacted form”.
The inquiry explicitly requested Johnson’s WhatsApp communications covering the period from 1 January 2020 to 24 February 2022 recorded on devices owned by the then-PM and used in group messages discussing the government’s response to Covid-19 or involving members of a list of named individuals.
Senior Government Legal Department lawyer Parm Sahota yesterday wrote to the inquiry’s legal team confirming the absence of any messages dated before May 2021 in Johnson’s submission. The letter from Sahota referred to extra details in a witness statement from Ellie Nicholson, co-director of the Cabinet Office’s Public Inquiry Response Unit.
Nicholson says the omission of 16 months’ worth of messages relates to a “well-publicised security breach” in April 2021. At that time, it emerged that Johnson’s phone number was widely available on the internet and the then-PM switched phones.
Nicholson said it was believed that Johnson still had the phone he was using until he switched devices on security advice.
“On 31 May, the Cabinet Office spoke to Mr Johnson’s legal representatives to ask them to check with Mr Johnson that he has possession of the phone, and to confirm this to the Cabinet Office,” she said.
“The Cabinet Office explained that if the phone could be passed to the government it could be assessed by security experts.
“On the morning of 1 June, the Cabinet Office emailed to chase for a response. We have not yet received a substantive response.
“As the Cabinet Office is not, I understand, in possession of the phone, any material stored on the phone is not in the Cabinet Office’s possession or control.”