The Cabinet Office has reiterated its refusal to hand over some of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages to the COVID inquiry, arguing part of the material is of a “private” and “personal” nature.
In a fresh statement issued on Tuesday evening, the Cabinet Office said it was “fully committed to our obligations to the COVID-19 inquiry” but that it was “firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation”.
The department said it has already provided “upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements” and that “extensive time and effort” had gone into assisting the inquiry over the last 11 months.
But it added: “However, we are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation.
“This includes the WhatsApp messages of government employees’ which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”
The latest intervention suggests the government could be willing to go to court to avoid handing over the material requested by the inquiry chair, Lady Hallett, who had ordered the department to hand over the former prime minister’s messages – alongside diary entries and notes – by 4pm on Tuesday 30 May.
The deadline has now been set for 4pm on Thursday 1 June. The Cabinet Office asked for an extension to Monday 5 June as they do not have access to Mr Johnson‘s messages or notebooks, but this was rejected.
This is despite saying in their original appeal against the order that there was “unambiguously irrelevant” material in the redacted parts of messages sent to the inquiry.
When the Cabinet Office lodged the appeal on 15 May, it said Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages had not yet been received by the government.
A spokesman for the former prime minister said today that he had “no objection” to sending the material to the inquiry.
Mr Johnson has written to the Cabinet Office to demand the government requests in writing access to his messages and notes – which he says has not happened yet.
What is the COVID inquiry asking for?
- Unredacted messages sent and received by Boris Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022.
- Unredacted diaries for Mr Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022
- Copies of 24 unredacted notebooks filled in by Mr Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022
- Unredacted messages sent and received by adviser Henry Cook between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022.
- The inquiry wants messages – even from group chats – about the government response to COVID, as well as contact with a list of certain experts, ministers, civil servants and advisers
Sources close to Mr Johnson say Cabinet Office officials have visited his office in person to examine notebooks within the past few weeks.
If the government does not abide by the new deadline on Thursday, Lady Hallett has ordered that a statement be sent by a “senior civil servant” confirming the Cabinet Office does not have the requested information, as well as a chronology of the government’s contacts with Mr Johnson about the requests and whether the government has ever had the data.
Breaking a section 21 order could see the government face criminal proceedings, and there is also potential for a court battle over whether the information should be passed to the inquiry.
Speaking shortly before the inquiry’s announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the “government is carefully considering its position, but it is confident in the approach that it’s taking”.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have criticised Mr Sunak for hesitating over the order, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accusing the prime minister of being “slippery”.
Mr Streeting said Mr Sunak should “comply with the inquiry and do it today”.
“One minute the government says the messages they have are immaterial; the next minute they’re saying they don’t exist. Which is it?”
He said the prime minister’s “slipperiness” gave “the impression of someone who is not fully committed to transparency, openness, accountability”.
Lady Hallett made an order under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 for the material to be handed over by the Cabinet Office.
The section 21 notice under the Act allows an inquiry chair to require someone to give evidence or produce documents.
In this case, it included unredacted WhatsApp messages, diary entries and notebooks belonging to the former prime minister. Messages to and from Mr Johnson’s former adviser Henry Cook were also included in the legal action.
It is this order which has now been extended.
It is understood the Cabinet Office believes handing over some of the requested material could have an adverse impact on future government policy and the privacy of some individuals, and that doing so could set a precedent.
Cabinet Office sources are also concerned that some of the material includes purely personal information that could jeopardise the right to private life.