Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and the Covid inquiry row explained

What’s the row all about and what are its future implications for the government and Boris Johnson?

Boris Johnson

In recent days a row between Boris Johnson, the Cabinet Office and the Covid inquiry has been tearing the Tory party apart, even threatening the future of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak himself as the government faces the possibility of a legal battle with the Covid inquiry.

So, what’s the row all about and what are its future implications for the government and Boris Johnson?

What has the Covid inquiry requested?

The Covid inquiry, which is being chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, is looking into the UK’s preparedness for and response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Government decisions, political reputations and use of public funds will be “under the microscope”.

Module One of the inquiry will cover the period from 2010 to January 2020, when the first cases of Covid-19 arrived in the UK.

The inquiry will examine hundreds of thousands of documents. It has requested witness statements from the key figures involved in managing the UK’s response to the pandemic, including Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill and Dominic Cummings.

In May, Baroness Hallett issued a legal notice requesting Mr Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, his official diaries from between January 2020 and February 2022, together with 24 notebooks.

What’s been Boris Johnson’s response?

Sources close to the former Prime Minister say that he has ‘no objection’ to disclosing material to the official Covid inquiry as the deadline for handing over unredacted messages was extended from 4pm on 30th May to 4pm 1st June.

Johnson says that the decision to challenge the inquiry’s position on redactions is for the Cabinet Office.

He has however showed a resistance to having his diaries published in full, saying previously that publishing his diaries in full would be a breach of national security.

What is the Cabinet Office’s response?

The Cabinet Office has argued that the correspondence covering more than two years during the pandemic should not be released as much of its contents are “irrelevant” to the inquiry.

It is also now claiming that it does not have Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or notebooks, leading to accusations of a coverup.

It also warns that should the Whtasapp messages be handed over, government ministers would be prevented from communicating freely in the future. The Cabient Office fears a precedent could be set, meaning that if the casual communications between ministers over WhatsApp and similar services are made public, they will feel unable to speak candidly during future crises.

For the Cabinet Office, the row isn’t just about Johnson. Every minister who was involved in discussions during the pandemic, including then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak, has an interest in keeping their messages private in a bid to protect their reputations.

An ally of the former PM alleged he had become a ‘distraction’ in the row and said the ‘WhatsApps the Government really doesn’t want disclosed are Sunak’s’ – a claim dismissed by No 10.

So, what could happen next?

The Cabinet Office has continued to insist that the COVID inquiry can’t “request unambiguously irrelevant information.”

This means that it is set for a legal battle with the inquiry when the deadline finally arrives. The government also claims that it does not have the material and could follow Baroness Hallett’s instruction to submit a witness statement from a senior civil servant and a statement of truth confirming the documents are not held.

Lady Hallett has warned that a failure to hand over the unredacted WhatsApp messages by the deadline would be a breach of the Inquiries Act 2005, which could mean the department and individuals within it would become subject to legal challenges.

Basit Mahmood is editor of Left Foot Forward

Comments are closed.