Government launches legal bid to stop Covid investigation from seeing Johnson WhatsApps

Government launches legal bid to stop Covid investigation from seeing Johnson WhatsApps
  • By Joshua Nevitt and Sam Francis
  • BBC Politics

image source, Getty Images

The government will launch an unprecedented legal challenge over a Covid demand to inquire about WhatsApp messages and documents.

Officials missed the 16:00 deadline to reveal letters between Boris Johnson and his advisers during the pandemic, as well as his diaries and notebooks.

It is believed that this is the first time that a government has taken legal action against an investigation it has conducted.

Johnson said he was “happy” to hand over uncompromised material if asked.

In a letter to Baroness Hallett, the chair of the Covid investigation, Mr Johnson said: “If you would like to have these materials immediately, please tell me where and how you would like them to be sent to you.”

A spokesman for the former prime minister said a mobile phone used by Johnson during a crucial period of the pandemic was involved in a security breach, and has not been turned on since.

In April 2021, more than a year after the first UK lockdown began, it was revealed that Johnson’s mobile phone number had been discoverable online for more than 15 years. The BBC has been told that the contents of this phone have not been seen by the Covid investigation.

The spokesperson added that Johnson had written to the Cabinet Office asking if security and technical support could be provided so that content could be retrieved without compromising security.

But the investigation chief says determining what is appropriate should be her job.

Crossbench counterpart Baroness Hallett says she needs to see the letters to see if they are relevant to the investigation into how the government handled the pandemic.

The government says handing over the required materials would set a precedent that could prevent ministers from discussing policy matters in the future.

The Cabinet Office, which holds the reins for the government, said it would apply for judicial review. This means that the judge will decide whether the investigation has exceeded its legal powers to demand evidence.

Elkan Abrahamsson, a lawyer representing the Covid-19 group Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “The Cabinet Office shows a complete disregard for the investigation in maintaining their belief that they are the highest authority and arbiter of what is relevant and what is not.

“It raises questions about the integrity of the investigation and how open and transparent it is if the president is unable to see all of the material.”

Opposition parties accused Rishi Sunak’s government of trying to derail the Covid investigation and urged him to comply with their requests.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “The recent smoke and mirrors tactics only serve to undermine the Covid investigation.”

The Liberal Democrats said the legal challenge was “a blow in the teeth for bereaved families who have already waited too long for answers”.

Some senior Tory MPs have urged the government to back down to avoid a drawn-out legal confrontation with the Covid investigation.

The legal challenge came a day after Mr Johnson claimed he had given the Cabinet Office all the WhatsApp messages and notebooks requested by the Covid investigation.

He urged the Cabinet Office to submit the material to the investigation in its entirety, without redaction, adding that it would do so himself “if asked to do so”.

The investigation requested access to WhatsApp messages from Mr Johnson’s phone, covering the period from 1 January 2020 to 24 February 2022.

But the material provided by Johnson did not include letters sent before May 2021.

The director of the Cabinet Office said in a statement to the investigation that this was because he was forced to change phones after a security breach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *