Deadline approaches for ministers to respond to Covid-19 inquiry on Johnson's messages

Cabinet office pushed back on the original request, claiming it was unlawful

Former prime minister Boris Johnson's conversations with a host of government figures and senior officials are being sought by a Covid-19 inquiry. AP
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Ministers have hours left to respond to a request to release unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries belonging to former UK prime minister Boris Johnson to the Covid-19 inquiry, or risk facing legal action.

The cabinet office was originally asked to send the materials – which date back to the period from January 2020 to February 2022 and also apply to messages from former adviser Henry Cook – on April 28.

But it pushed back on the request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, claiming it was unlawful.

However, in a ruling last week, Lady Hallett, the chairwoman of the inquiry, rejected the argument and said the cabinet office had “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation”.

In her response, she said that the requested documents were of “potential relevance” to the inquiry's “lines of investigation”.

The cabinet office has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.

But the government believes it has no duty to disclose “unambiguously irrelevant” material.

A cabinet office spokesman said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 inquiry.

“As such, extensive time and effort [have] gone into assisting the inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.

“We will continue to provide all relevant material to the inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting under way.”

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 Sir Chris Whitty, as well Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser at the time.

Messages exchanged with Liz Truss and Matt Hancock, foreign and health secretaries, respectively, at the time have also been requested, as well as those exchanged with former top aide Dominic Cummings and Rishi Sunak, chancellor at the time.

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”.

Updated: May 29, 2023, 11:35 AM