Minister defends civil servants who referred Johnson to police over lockdown breach claims

Officials could not "sit on" information discovered while preparing for the Covid Inquiry, Chalk says
Boris Johnson gives a press conference at Chequers in 2021. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The justice secretary has defended civil servants who referred Boris Johnson to the police over concerns he may have broken Covid lockdown rules by inviting friends to visit Chequers at the height of the pandemic.

Alex Chalk said officials, who made the discovery while reviewing the former prime minister’s ministerial diary in preparation for the Covid public inquiry, could not be expected to “sit on” information about a potential rule breach.

The Times reported yesterday that the Cabinet Office had passed information to the Metropolitan Police and Thames Valley police, as well as parliament’s Privileges Committee, after officials suspected some visits to the then-prime minister’s grace-and-favour residence may have breached the rules.

Potential breaches at Downing Street are also being looked into, the Met said.

Chalk said this morning that lawyers working on the Covid Inquiry had discovered “material that they had a concern about" and passed it onto civil servants.

Those officials then referred the matter to the police "without any involvement with ministers", he said.

"If they had sat on it then people would have criticised them for that – if they had passed it on, others would criticise,” he told BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

"They have been put in quite a difficult position and ultimately it comes down to what is in the documents, which I haven't seen."

The newspaper said “multiple sources” had said the alleged rule breaches involved Johnson’s friends and family members, but that a source close to Johnson had denied the claim.

A spokesperson for Johnson called the referral a “clearly politically motivated attempt to manufacture something out of nothing”. 

“Some abbreviated entries in Mr Johnson’s official diary were queried by the Cabinet Office during preparation for the Covid inquiry. Following an examination of the entries, Mr Johnson’s lawyers wrote to the Cabinet Office and Privileges Committee explaining that the events were lawful and were not breaches of any Covid regulations,” they said.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Information came to light during the process of preparing evidence for submission to the Covid Inquiry. It was identified as part of the normal disclosure review of potentially relevant documents being undertaken by the legal team for inquiry witnesses.

“In line with obligations in the civil service code, this material has been passed to the relevant authorities and it is now a matter for them.”

A spokesperson for Thames Valley police said: “On Thursday we received a report of potential breaches of the health protection regulations between June 2020 and May 2021 at Chequers, Buckinghamshire. We are currently assessing this information.”

The Metropolitan Police said : “We are in receipt of information from the Cabinet Office passed to us on May 19 2023, which we are currently assessing. It relates to potential breaches of the health-protection regulations between June 2020 and May 2021 at Downing Street.”

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