Covid Inquiry: Boris Johnson hands WhatsApps and notes to Cabinet Office

Row heats up as Cabinet Office refuses to share records it believes are "irrelevant" to public inquiry
Photo: Jamie Lorriman/Alamy Stock Photo

By Adam Payne

01 Jun 2023

Boris Johnson has given the Cabinet Office "all" of the private material that is at the centre of a row between the government and the Covid Inquiry, his spokesperson has said.

The former prime minister is "perfectly happy" for the government to give the material to inquiry chair Lady Hallett and would have "immediately" handed it over had he been asked, his spokesperson said on Wednesday. 

The Cabinet Office has been given until 4pm on Thursday to disclose the material but has so far said it would not share records that it believes are "unambiguously irrelevant" to the public inquiry's work. It had also claimed they did not possess the material in question from Johnson's personal records. 

Now that it has the material, the department must decide whether to hand it to the inquiry, after being urged to do so by Johnson, or whether it will stand by its position of withholding the information. 

The former PM's spokesperson said Johnson does not want to contradict the government's position of not handing it over, but is "perfectly happy for the inquiry to have access to this material in whatever form it requires".

It is understood that Johnson would be willing to give the material to the inquiry directly if the Cabinet Office does not change its position.

In a statement, Johnson's spokesperson said: "All Boris Johnson’s material – including WhatsApps and notebooks – requested by the Covid Inquiry has been handed to the Cabinet Office in full and in unredacted form.

"Mr Johnson urges the Cabinet Office to urgently disclose it to the inquiry. The Cabinet Office has had access to this material for several months. Mr Johnson would immediately disclose it directly to the inquiry if asked.

"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.

"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."

Chair Lady Hallett, who Johnson appointed to lead the inquiry in December 2021, has said she will consider taking legal action if the government does not disclose the requested material.

Last week, the former judge issued a legal notice to the government using section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 to demand Johnson's unredacted WhatsApp messages and personal notebooks from the time period when he was in Downing Street during the Covid pandemic, with an initial deadline of 4pm 30 May.  

The Cabinet Office argues it is not obliged to hand over records that are "unambiguously irrelevant" to the work of the inquiry, and that doing so would establish a dangerous precedent for privacy.

The materials are believed to cover conversations between Johnson and senior members of his government at the time, including Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor at the height of the pandemic.

In legal advice to government leaked to Bloomberg, the government's chief lawyer Sir Jamers Eadie appeared to suggest that ministers should not give the inquiry "political sensitive material", like discussions between ministers during Covid about the government response, as it would breach the confidentiality principle of collective cabinet responsibility.

Adam Payne is political editor of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared

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