Wednesday May 31, 2023 – Boris Johnson has handed over all his Covid notebooks and WhatsApp messages to the government amid a row over transparency.
The former PM told ministers to inform the Cabinet Office that the private information be handed over ‘urgently’ to the probe into how the pandemic was handled.
It comes after days of arguments between the government and inquiry chair Baroness Hallett over what material can be disclosed.
Mr. Johnson also suggested he could hand the material directly to the inquiry if the Cabinet Office refuses.
A spokesman for the former leader this afternoon said: ‘All Boris Johnson’s material – including WhatsApps and notebooks – requested by the Covid Inquiry has been handed to the Cabinet Office in full and in unredacted form.
‘Mr. Johnson urges the Cabinet Office to urgently disclose it to the Inquiry.
‘The Cabinet Office has had access to this material for several months. Mr Johnson would immediately disclose it directly to the Inquiry if asked.
‘While Mr Johnson understands the government’s position, and does not seek to contradict it, he is perfectly happy for the Inquiry to have access to this material in whatever form it requires.’
The Cabinet Office had claimed it does not have access to the material which was demanded, and the Government has a wider objection to the release of ‘unambiguously irrelevant’ material.
The inquiry has set a deadline of 4pm on Thursday to hand over Mr Johnson’s messages, notebooks, and official diaries, having granted a 48-hour extension on Tuesday.
Lady Hallett demanded a witness statement from a senior civil servant accompanied by a statement of truth confirming the documents are not held if the Cabinet Office fails to produce them by the new deadline.
Work and Pensions Secretary Mr Stride told Sky News: ‘I’m absolutely certain and confident that the Cabinet Office will be engaged in this in exactly the right kind of way, and in the kind of spirit that I’ve just outlined and making sure that we are absolutely robustly transparent where it is appropriate to be so.
‘I think that’s an important qualification, so that the inquiry has all the information that it is right for it to have.’
It came after Mr. Johnson’s allies last night said he had ‘no objection’ to disclosing material to the official Covid inquiry as the deadline for handing over unredacted messages was extended.
No 10 denied accusations of a cover-up, and said there is no requirement to ‘permanently store or record every WhatsApp’, with messages related to decision-making instead copied over to the official record. The spokesman said it is ‘down to individuals to decide what personal information they are able to hand over’.
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.
It emerged last night that the Government has received legal advice to block the release of ‘politically sensitive’ material about the pandemic. Bloomberg reported that documents detailing discussions between senior ministers during the Covid crisis should not be disclosed ‘as a matter of course’ to avoid undermining the principle of collective responsibility.
Mr Sunak insisted yesterday the Government was acting ‘in a spirit of transparency and candour’. But Lady Hallett has demanded a witness statement from a senior civil servant, accompanied by a statement of truth confirming the documents are not held, if the Cabinet Office fails to produce them.
According to the notice seeking the unredacted messages, the inquiry is requesting conversations between Mr Johnson and a host of officials, including chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, then-health secretary Matt Hancock, former top aide Dominic Cummings and then-chancellor Mr. Sunak.
Last week, Lady Hallett rejected arguments the inquiry’s request was unlawful and claimed the Cabinet Office had ‘misunderstood the breadth of the investigation’.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said last night they are ‘fully committed to our obligations’ to the inquiry, adding: ‘However, we are firmly of the view the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation. This includes the WhatsApp messages of Government employees which are not about work.’