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Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson Alamy Stock Photo
covid inquiry

Boris Johnson ‘more than happy’ to hand material to UK Covid inquiry amid legal battle

Johnson was forced to change his mobile in 2021 after it emerged his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.

BORIS JOHNSON HAS said he is “more than happy” to hand over his unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks directly to the Covid inquiry, as the Government prepares for a legal battle with the probe. 

The Cabinet Office on Thursday confirmed it was seeking a judicial review of inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s order to release the documents, arguing that it should not have to hand over material which is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

But Johnson, in his own letter to the inquiry this evening, offered to hand over the requested material directly. 

He wrote: “This is of course without prejudice to the Judicial Review that the Government has now launched. I agree with the Cabinet Office position that in principle advice to ministers should not be made public. That is clearly essential for the effective running of the country and for the impartiality of the civil service.

“I am simply making a practical point: that I see no reason why the inquiry should not be able to satisfy itself about the contents of my own Whatsapps (sic) and notebooks, and to check the relevant Whatsapp (sic) conversations (about 40 of them) for anything that it deems relevant to the Covid inquiry.

“If you wish to have this material forthwith, please let me know where and how you wish me to send it to you.”

In a letter to the inquiry, released after a 4pm deadline to hand over the material, the Cabinet Office said it had provided “as much relevant information as possible, and as quickly as possible” in line with the order.

The letter said that the Cabinet Office was bringing the judicial review challenge “with regret” and promised to “continue to co-operate fully with the inquiry before, during and after the jurisdictional issue in question is determined by the courts”. 

That question will centre on whether Lady Hallett’s inquiry has the power to force ministers to release documents and messages which the Cabinet Office believes are “unambiguously irrelevant” and cover matters “unconnected to the Government’s handling of Covid”. 

The intervention by Johnson comes following criticism of the Government’s move to take legal action against the inquiry, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats condemning the highly unusual move.

But in arguments contained in a tranche of legal documents and letters published this evening, the Government insisted that there were “important issues of principle at stake” affecting the rights of individuals and “the proper conduct of government”.

In making the judicial review application, the Cabinet Office argues that concerns are “sharpened by the fact that irrelevant material contains ‘references to personal and family information, including illness and disciplinary matters’ and ‘comments of a personal nature about identified or identifiable individuals which are unrelated to Covid-19 or that individuals’ role in connection with the response to it’”.

Elsewhere, it is argued the inquiry’s concept of what is or is not relevant could have “absurd” implications and would leave the body “utterly swamped” and potentially slow proceedings.

The row with the inquiry centres around Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, diaries and personal notebooks, which the former prime minister handed over to the Cabinet Office in unredacted form yesterday.

But the documents reveal that the WhatsApp messages passed to officials are only from May 2021 onwards.

In a statement to the inquiry, senior civil servant Ellie Nicholson said Johnson’s lawyers have not provided a “substantive response” to a request from the Cabinet Office for his old mobile phone.

Nicholson said the Cabinet Office had received Johnson’s WhatsApp messages yesterday afternoon and was reviewing the material “for national security sensitivities and unambiguously irrelevant material, and appropriate redactions are being applied”.

She added: “In that material, there are no WhatsApp communications before May 2021. I understand that this is because, in April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach, Mr Johnson implemented security advice relating to the mobile phone he had had up until that time.”

Johnson was forced to change his mobile in 2021 after it emerged his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.

“After a well publicised security breach in April 2021, Mr Johnson was given advice by security officials never to turn on the old device. The effect is that historic messages are no longer available to search and the phone is not active,” a spokesman for the former prime minister said. 

“Mr Johnson has absolutely no objection whatsoever to providing content on the phone to the Inquiry.

“He has written to the Cabinet Office asking whether security and technical support can be given so that content can be retrieved without compromising security.

 “The Cabinet Office have long been aware of the status of the phone.”

Johnson’s notebooks will also be shared with the Covid inquiry in batches as the Cabinet Office said it did not have enough time to redact them after they were handed over. 

A spokesman for the Covid-19 inquiry said: “At 4pm today the chair of the UK Covid-19 public inquiry was served a copy of a claim form by the Cabinet Office seeking to commence judicial review proceedings against the chair’s ruling of 22 May 2023 

“Further information will be provided at the module two preliminary hearing at 10.30am on 6 June.”

Rishi Sunak, who spoke to broadcasters during a visit to Moldova ahead of today’s deadline and before the release of documents, had insisted ministers would act with “transparency and candour”.

The move has prompted warnings that bereaved families could now regard the public inquiry as a “whitewash and cover-up”.

Elkan Abrahamson, head of major inquests and inquiries at Broudie Jackson Canter, who represents the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said: “The Cabinet Office is showing utter disregard for the inquiry in maintaining their belief that they are the higher power and arbiter of what is relevant material and what is not.

“It raises questions about the integrity of the inquiry and how open and transparent it will be if the chair is unable to see all of the material.”

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