Accusations Of A ‘Cover-Up’ In Battle For Boris Johnson's Covid WhatsApps

The covid inquiry has now delayed their deadline for the handover of documents by two days.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson.
Brandon Bell via Getty Images

A former head of the civil service has accused the government of a “cover-up” over their refusal to release unredacted messages to the Covid inquiry.

Lord Kerslake said Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages should be released to the most important inquiry “since Iraq”.

It comes as the cabinet office has decided some documents do not need to be released in full, claiming they are “unambiguously irrelevant” to the probe.

The department had a deadline of 4pm on Tuesday to respond to inquiry chair Lady Hallett’s requests for messages and diaries belonging to former prime minister Johnson.

However, the inquiry has delayed this by two days to Thursday.

Should the messages not be released, ministers look set for a legal battle with the inquiry.

Kerslake told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers.

“But there’s also the cabinet office fighting for a principle of confidentiality.

“I have to say I think they’re misguided on this situation. I actually think it would set a helpful precedent if Lady Hallett prevailed in this fight about the information.

“We are in a bit of a mess at the moment, we don’t really know whether WhatsApp’s been used as a decision-making tool or, indeed, as just an information-sharing device.

“We’ve got the extraordinary situation where Matt Hancock handed over a whole sheath of WhatsApp messages to a journalist without any apparent sanction under the official secrets act, surely this case for seeing the documents in one of our most important inquiries, probably since Iraq, must be much more compelling than that.”

The row was sparked by a legal request sent by the inquiry on April 28 for a number of materials, including unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries belonging to Johnson between January 2020 and February 2022.

In May the cabinet office pushed back against the request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and which also applies to messages from former adviser Henry Cook.

In a ruling last week, Lady Hallett rejected the argument that the inquiry’s request was unlawful and claimed that the cabinet office had “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation”.

Refusing to comply with the request would lead to a legal clash with the official inquiry, raising the possibility of ministers seeking a judicial review of the probe’s powers.

A cabinet office spokesman said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 inquiry.

“As such, extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.

“We will continue to provide all relevant material to the inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting under way.”

Lib Dem health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said that “failing to hand over the evidence in full, as requested by the chair of the Covid inquiry, would make a mockery of this whole process and would be yet another insult to bereaved families still waiting for justice”.

She added: “It looks like Rishi Sunak is too worried about upsetting Boris Johnson and his allies to do the right thing.”


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