Covid inquiry: Boris Johnson to bypass government and hand over WhatsApp messages himself
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Boris Johnson has told the chair of the Covid-19 public inquiry he will give her unedited versions of his WhatsApp messages - a day after the government announced it would bring a legal challenge to stop her seeing them.
The Cabinet Office has raised concerns about handing them over - insisting there’s no reason for Baroness Hallett to look at what it describes as “unambigiously irrelevant” material. Johnson says he has no opposition to her doing so, and is now making them available himself.
Why does the inquiry want to see these messages?
The inquiry was set up to learn lessons from the pandemic, and examine the way Johnson and his government responded to it. It’s due to begin public hearings later this month.
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. 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.
Last week, Hallett issued an order to the Cabinet Office to hand them over, as well as 24 notebooks Johnson used. She added that failure to comply was a criminal offence which could result in a fine or a prison sentence.
Johnson passed all the WhatsApps and notebooks to the Cabinet Office on Wednesday (31 May). Yesterday (1 June), the Cabinet Office confirmed it would take legal action to stop Hallett seeing them. It said it did so “with regret” but believed “there were important issues of principle at stake”.
It’s worried that disclosing all the WhatsApp messages might mean - in future - ministers don’t feel able to speak freely if they think their communications will be aired publicly years later.
What’s happened now?
Johnson has now bypassed the government, telling Hallett in a letter today (2 June) he’s happy for her to see all the material he has.
He wrote: “The government yesterday decided to take legal action. It was not my decision to do so. While I understand the government’s position, I am not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it”.
“I am therefore providing the material directly to your inquiry today in unredacted form”.
Johnson also confirmed he’d asked the Cabinet Office to give his notebooks to Hallett - and if it chose not to, he’d ask for them back so he could transfer them to the inquiry.
What have opposition parties said?
This morning, the Liberal Democrats announced they would table a motion when Parliament returns next week, forcing the government to release all the messages. However it’s unlikely to have enough support for a vote.
For Labour, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said: “These latest smoke and mirror tactics serve only to undermine the Covid inquiry. The public deserve answers, not another cover-up.“
“Instead of digging himself further into a hole by pursuing doomed legal battles to conceal the truth, Rishi Sunak must comply with the Covid inquiry’s requests for evidence in full. There can be no more excuses”.
What about Johnson’s latest alleged Covid breaches?
Earlier this month, it emerged the Cabinet Office had also 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”.