Covid inquiry demand for Johnsons' WhatsApp ends in legal challenge

01/06/2023 | The Guardian

In a story that's been rumbling along for more than a week, the UK government had days to decide whether to take legal action against the Covid inquiry in order to keep sensitive communications from more than 40 senior figures, including Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Cummings, Liz Truss, and Dominic Raab, hidden from the public eye. 

The news came days after the Chair of the Covid inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallett DBE, issued a legal notice ordering the government to hand over the entire, unredacted contents from Mr Johnson's WhatsApp messages, along with his diaries and notebooks. In case you missed it, this link provides the background of what the standoff between the government and the inquiry is all about.

While the Cabinet Office provided the inquiry with over 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, 8 corporate statements and has stated that it would provide "all relevant material in line with the law," it maintains the inquiry lacks the authority to demand the submission of unedited materials that it regards as "unquestionably irrelevant." Furthermore, its lawyers assert disclosure would impair future policy discussions and establish a harmful precedent, citing human rights and data protection laws to support their argument.

However, Dominic Grieve, former Conservative attorney general, warned, “they’ve either got to hand the material over, or they have got to bring judicial review proceedings on the basis that her request is unreasonable. I think it is likely they will be given pretty short shrift if they turn up at court to argue that."

In a further twist, as the Tuesday 4pm deadline approached, HuffPost reported that the Cabinet Office claims it "does not have" Boris Johnson's Covid WhatsApp messages or notebooks. 

Against the threat of failing to comply, which could have resulted in a criminal offence punishable with a fine or imprisonment, the deadline was extended by 48 hours.

At this point, the government was facing accusations of a cover-up, despite reports of the former prime minister saying he had given Cabinet Office-appointed legal representative access to the material. As the saga continued to spiral, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was also accused of covering up ministers' actionsFurthermore, on Wednesday, Boris Johnson handed all his WhatsApp messages and notebooks to the Cabinet Office and confirmed that they should “urgently disclose” the contents to the Covid inquiry. It turns out all doesn't mean all, as the messages handed over only date from May 2021, after Mr Johnson received a new mobile. The earlier messages are also available if required, according to a Johnson ally. 

And then, on Thursday, in another twist, the Cabinet Office announced it had served notice to Lady Hallett that a legal process in the High Court was being launched. The government is concerned this could set a legal precedent and that other ministers' WhatsApp could be demanded. Really? 

The government now finds itself in an unusual position; in the first instance, it is taking legal action against the independent public inquiry to examine the Covid-19 pandemic that it set up and gave legal powers. Furthermore, its reasoning for challenging whether the inquiry has overstepped is to rely on the Human Rights Act and the EU-originated General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In a related piece on the extent to which government by WhatsApp has become so widespread, The Guardian writes, "If we care about the way that government is run and how records are kept, the three-way tussle between the inquiry chair, mandarins and the former prime minister about whether these messages can remain private concerns all of us."

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