Everything To Know About The Row Over Boris Johnson's Covid WhatsApp Messages

The government is in a stand-off with the inquiry into the handling of the pandemic – and could face a legal battle – as the ex-prime minister intervenes.
Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson.
Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson.
Pool/Getty/PA News

Rishi Sunak’s government is locked in a stand-off with the public inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – with Boris Johnson throwing a spanner into the works that is doing little to help one of his successors.

It’s a tangled story, with accusations of a “cover-up” and contradictory statements being hurled around – all set against the backdrop of the prime minister’s promise to bring “integrity” when he took residence in Downing Street. Ultimately, the government may be forced into a humiliating U-turn.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is the inquiry?

The UK has recorded more than 200,000 deaths among people with Covid-19, one of the highest tolls in Europe, and the decisions of the government – then under Johnson’s command – have been endlessly debated.

An independent public inquiry into his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was established by Johnson when he was prime minister in late 2021 after pressure from bereaved families.

The inquiry is due to investigate the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic, how the government responded, and whether the “level of loss was inevitable or whether things could have been done better”. Public hearings are scheduled to start in June, and Johnson is among the senior officials due to give evidence.

Why have Johnson’s messages mattered?

Johnson was one of dozens of people fined last year for breaking his own government’s pandemic lockdown rules in the so-called partygate scandal. Earlier this month, government-appointed lawyers helping Johnson prepare his submissions and testimony came across evidence of more potential breaches of Covid-19 restrictions, and handed them to the police.

The new evidence relates to alleged visits to Chequers, the prime minister’s official country retreat, as well as potential breaches in the leader’s Downing Street residence.

Officials from the cabinet office, a government department which supports the work of the prime minister, acted after “information came to light” as they made preparations for the inquiry. Johnson responded by accusing the government of a “politically motivated stitch-up” as he insisted that no lockdown regulations were broken.

What’s the latest row about?

The new fall-out stems from a legal request sent by the inquiry on April 28 asking for a range of materials – including Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and diaries.

But the cabinet office initially only responded by giving redacted versions, saying they only cut out material that was “unambiguously irrelevant” to the investigation. The documents are likely to include text conversations between Johnson and a host of government figures – including Sunak, who was chancellor during the pandemic and was also handed down a fine for lockdown rule-breaking.

Whitehall officials are concerned about setting a precedent by handing over all the requested documents in unredacted form, rather than deciding what material is relevant and should be submitted to the inquiry. Refusing to comply with the request to hand over the documents could lead to a court battle with the inquiry.

But inquiry chairperson Heather Hallett, a retired judge, wants to make up her own mind. She said “the entire contents of the specified documents are of potential relevance to the lines of investigation being pursued by the inquiry”.

Hallett, who has the power to summon evidence and question witnesses under oath, has set a deadline of 4pm on Thursday for the government to hand over the documents covering a two-year period from early 2020, having granted a 48-hour extension on Tuesday.

The inquiry said if the WhatsApp messages and notebooks can’t be produced, the government must provide witness statements from senior officials setting out what efforts have been made to find them.

What about Johnson’s latest intervention?

Then came the Johnson wrecking ball.

On Wednesday, the former PM said he has handed his unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks to the cabinet office and called on the government to “urgently disclose” the material to the inquiry.

The cabinet office had claimed it did not have access to Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and private notebooks. But a spokesman for Johnson appeared to contradict the claim – and said the department “had access to this material for several months”.

Johnson’s comments ramp up the pressure on the cabinet office, with Downing Street already forced to deny allegations of a “cover-up” from a former head of the civil service.

What now?

Whitehall officials hope that a compromise can be reached before the 4pm deadline to avoid the need for a damaging legal fight with the inquiry.

Sunak, who took office after Johnson left office in September – to be succeeded, for a few weeks, by Liz Trusssaid the government had already handed over tens of thousands of documents to the inquiry and was “considering next steps carefully”.


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