Covid-19 inquiry threatens legal action over release of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages

The inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett has issued a legal notice for the Cabinet Office to hand documents over

The Covid-19 pandemic inquiry has ordered the Cabinet Office to release unredacted versions of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and diary entries - under the threat of legal action.

The newly released documents appeared hours after two police forces confirmed they were investigating the former Prime Minister for further alleged breaches of lockdown rules at Downing Street and his former grace-and-favour residence, Chequers in Buckinghamshire.

What is the Covid-19 inquiry?

The inquiry has been set up to learn lessons from the pandemic, and examine the way the UK government responded to it. It’s due to begin public hearings in the middle of June.

Ahead of those hearings, the inquiry has been gathering huge amounts of material sent to and from decision makers to assess how they dealt with the crisis. Baroness Hallett said she wanted to see unredacted WhatsApp messages between Johnson, one of his advisers named Henry Cook and other key figures like the chief medical officer, Sir Chris Whitty, and Sir Patrick Vallance - who was chief scientific adviser at the time. She issued an order to the Cabinet Office to hand them over, as well as 24 notebooks Johnson used.

How did the Cabinet Office respond?

The Cabinet Office said some of the documents requested by Hallett contained “unambiguously irrelevant” material and claimed the inquiry had no power to demand it.

Hallett insisted she did, and gave the Cabinet Office until the end of this month to pass it over. She added that failure to comply was a criminal offence which could result in a fine or a prison sentence.

What has Boris Johnson said?

In a letter to Hallett, Johnson - whose legal fees have been paid by the government and approved by the Cabinet Office - said he’d never seen the order and it was “unfair and untrue” to suggest he’d failed to provide documents to the inquiry. He added he’d “already disclosed over 5,000 pages of documents and over 300 pages of emails”.

The ex-PM also confirmed he was instructing new solicitors to represent him, and the process was “in the hands of the Cabinet Office to agree funding” at taxpayers’ expense.

The Cabinet Office itself has provided more than 55,000 documents to Hallett. But Downing Street said the government was concerned about disclosing materials “clearly irrelevant” to the inquiry’s work - “for example WhatsApps which are personal in nature” - because of the effect it might have on policymaking in the future.

How has Labour reacted?

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “The fact the Covid inquiry has had to invoke legal powers to compel the handover of crucial documents suggests that this is a government with much to hide.”

“Rather than fighting legal battles to withhold evidence, it is essential that ministers now comply so the public is able to get to the truth and those responsible can be held to account.”

What about Johnson’s new alleged Covid breaches?

These revelations have come to light a day after the Cabinet Office confirmed it had passed fresh claims of Covid lockdown breaches by Johnson to the police.

The Metropolitan and Thames Valley Police forces said they were both investigating allegations dating back to 2020 and 2021 - when strict rules were in place on the number of people who could gather indoors.

Johnson has described the claims as “bizarre and unacceptable” - while his allies have suggested he’s the victim of a “stitch-up”.