The Cabinet Office has been threatened with legal action amid a row with the official UK Covid-19 Inquiry over the release of unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries belonging to Boris Johnson.
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 the former prime minister between January 2020 and February 2022.
In May, the Cabinet Office sought to resist that request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and which also applies to messages from former adviser Henry Cook.
But in an eight-page ruling, released among several other documents on Wednesday, inquiry chairwoman 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”.
The ruling, dated May 22, argues that “in order to evaluate the response of the government and/or of any individual Minister to the pandemic, it may be necessary for reasons of context for me to understand the other (superficially unrelated) political matters with which they were concerned at the time”.
She added that “such matters may acquire greater significance where it appears to me, or it is otherwise suggested, that a Minister dealt with Covid-related issues inadequately because he or she was focusing (perhaps inappropriately) on other issues”.
“For similar reasons, I may also be required to investigate the personal commitments of ministers and other decision-makers during the time in question.”
“There is, for example, well-established public concern as to the degree of attention given to the emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020 by the then Prime Minister,” she added.
Noting that “those who hold documents will never be in as good a position as the inquiry itself to judge the possible relevance to the inquiry of documents they hold”, she said that some “important passages” had initially been declared “unambiguously irrelevant” by the Cabinet Office.
Downing Street on Wednesday insisted that the Government was supplying “all relevant material” to the inquiry.
“We established the inquiry to ensure the actions of the state during the pandemic are examined as rigorously and candidly as possible to ensure we learn the right lessons for the future,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said:
“The Government remains committed to its obligations to the inquiry and in line with the law.
“We are providing all relevant material to the inquiry.
“We have, of course, continued to comply with requests in line with that principle so that it can undertake its vitally important work.”
The Cabinet Office has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.
“It’s our position that the inquiry does not have the power to compel the Government to disclose unambiguously irrelevant material, given the precedent that this would set and its potential adverse impact on policy formulation in the future,” the spokesman said.
According to the notice seeking the unredacted messages, the inquiry is requesting conversations between Mr Johnson and a host of government figures, civil servants and officials.
The list includes England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, as well as then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Messages with then-foreign secretary Liz Truss and then-health secretary Matt Hancock are also requested, as well as with former top aide Dominic Cummings and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The inquiry had also asked for “copies of the 24 notebooks containing contemporaneous notes made by the former Prime Minister” in “clean unredacted form, save only for any redactions applied for reasons of national security sensitivity”.
Downing Street said that the Government would “consider our next steps carefully” in responding to the notice from the inquiry.
A deadline of 4pm on May 30 has been set for the Government to respond to the request.
“This inquiry needs to get to the facts if it is to learn lessons to help save lives in the next pandemic, so well done to Baroness Hallett for standing up to the Cabinet Office on this occasion.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “The fact the Covid inquiry has had to invoke legal powers to compel the handover of crucial documents suggests that this is a Government with much to hide.
“Rather than fighting legal battles to withhold evidence, it is essential that ministers now comply so the public is able to get to the truth and those responsible can be held to account.”
Among the documents released on Wednesday was a letter sent by Mr Johnson to the inquiry chairwoman.
The former prime minister said he was “currently instructing new solicitors to represent” him, writing: “As at today, I am unrepresented and my counsel team have been instructed not to provide me with any advice.”
Mr Johnson also suggested it would be “highly prejudicial” to him for the inquiry to publish its ruling on the row without seeing it beforehand and said any implication that he had failed to provide documents would be “unfair and untrue”.
A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said: “Matt has made all his records and materials available to the inquiry without making any redactions for relevance. Matt feels very strongly that full transparency is vital so all lessons can be learned.”