Deadline looms again in Covid inquiry row as Johnson says WhatsApps can be given
The Government faces a deadline to either release Boris Johnson’s unredacted messages and diaries to the Covid-19 inquiry or face a legal dispute, with an extension due to come to an end on Thursday.
The Cabinet Office had claimed it did not have access to Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and private notebooks ahead of an earlier deadline on Tuesday.
But the former prime minister said on Wednesday that the material has been handed over to the Government, and he urged the Cabinet Office to pass the contents on to Baroness Hallett’s official inquiry.
The Cabinet Office has confirmed it has received the information from Mr Johnson and officials are looking at it, but has continued its objection to releasing “unambiguously irrelevant” material.
The inquiry, set up to examine the pandemic and the Government’s response, has set a deadline of 4pm on Thursday to hand over the information, having granted a 48-hour extension on Tuesday.
The documents include text conversations between Mr Johnson and high-profile figures, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
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.
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said on Wednesday: “All Boris Johnson’s material – including WhatsApps and notebooks – requested by the Covid inquiry has been handed to the Cabinet Office in full and in unredacted form.
“Mr Johnson urges the Cabinet Office to urgently disclose it to the inquiry.
“The Cabinet Office has had access to this material for several months. Mr Johnson would immediately disclose it directly to the inquiry if asked.
“While Mr Johnson understands the Government’s position, and does not seek to contradict it, he is perfectly happy for the inquiry to have access to this material in whatever form it requires.”
The request was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, and in a ruling last week, Lady Hallett rejected the argument that the inquiry’s request was unlawful and said the Cabinet Office had “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation”.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 inquiry.
“As such, the Cabinet Office alone has already provided upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements and extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the Inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.
“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.”
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