The government is locked in a stand-off with the official Covid-19 inquiry as ministers refused to hand over unredacted messages from Boris Johnson during his time as prime minister.
The inquiry, chaired by Lady Heather Hallett, has given the Cabinet Office until Tuesday to hand over Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and diaries as part of its investigation into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
But, on Monday, the Cabinet Office, the department which runs the machinery of government, resisted demands to hand over information it called “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry. It suggested that this would set a harmful precedent and be detrimental to Johnson’s privacy.
The row highlights the increasing role that the messaging platform WhatsApp plays in UK politics. It comes just two months after Matt Hancock, former UK health secretary, gave 100,000 of his WhatsApp messages to a journalist who subsequently allowed them to be published.
The government has already provided more than 55,000 documents, eight corporate statements and 24 personal witness statements to the inquiry.
Johnson has pointed out that he has already shared 5,000 pages of documents and 300 pages of emails with investigators.
However, the Cabinet Office is refusing to hand over certain documents in an unredacted form ahead of its deadline on Tuesday on the basis that they are irrelevant to the inquiry.
These include Johnson’s diaries and messages with around 40 government figures, including Sunak who was chancellor at the time.
However, last week Hallett, a retired Court of Appeal judge, highlighted that some areas of correspondence which the Cabinet Office had claimed were “unambiguously irrelevant” were in her opinion relevant to the investigation.
These included talks between the former prime minister and aides about the London Metropolitan Police’s enforcement of Covid regulations after the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in 2021.
“It cannot be right that a mere assertion by such a person of ‘unambiguous irrelevance’ has the effect of extinguishing any power in the inquiry to require the production of the documents so that it can determine for itself the relevance or otherwise of the material,” Hallett said in a statement.
Hallett used a section 21 order of the Inquiries Act to compel the government to hand over the information, meaning that a failure to do so could amount to a criminal offence.
But officials played down the idea that the government would compromise ahead of Tuesday’s deadline: “Our position hasn’t changed,” said one. “I think legal commentators have said that if the two sides are still at loggerheads then there could be a need for independent legal arbitration.”
The spat could overshadow the start of the Covid inquiry on June 13. The independent probe will examine the UK’s state of readiness and response to the pandemic which began at the start of 2020.
There have been nearly 227,000 deaths recorded with Covid-19 on the certificate in the UK, according to official statistics.
Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans and health spokesperson, said the government’s failure to hand over the evidence in full would “make a mockery of this whole process” and be an insult to bereaved families.
“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,” the Cabinet Office said.
“We will continue to provide all relevant material to the inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting under way.”
A spokesperson for Johnson said disclosures were a matter for the Cabinet Office: “We continue to fully co-operate with the public inquiry.”