Deadline delayed for handing over Boris Johnson messages to Covid inquiry

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The deadline for the Government to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, diaries and notebooks to the Covid-19 inquiry has been extended as officials claimed they did not have all the documents demanded.

The Cabinet Office had been given until 4pm on Tuesday to comply with the order from Lady Hallett’s public inquiry, but that deadline has now been extended to the same time on Thursday.

Officials told her the Cabinet Office does not have the WhatsApp messages or notebooks called for by the inquiry.

A notice from the inquiry read: “First, an extension was requested for compliance with the ruling until Monday June 5 2023.

“The chair rejected the request for an extension of time to June 5 2023, but granted a short extension to 4pm on Thursday June 1 2023.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Government was acting “in a spirit of transparency and candour”.

“The Government has co-operated with the inquiry; tens of thousands of documents have been handed over.

“With regard to the specific question at the moment, the Government is carefully considering its position but it is confident in the approach that it’s taking.”

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said he “has no objection to disclosing material to the inquiry”.

“He has done so and will continue to do so,” the former prime minister’s spokesman said.

Mr Johnson’s team says the notebooks and WhatsApps have been handed to the Cabinet Office legal team, but he has since parted ways with his government-appointed lawyers.

The former prime minister says he has not had a request from the Cabinet Office since telling officials in a letter on Friday any request for material must be in writing to him.

According to his team, his message to the department said: “If the Cabinet Office requires any action to be taken regarding this or any other material you must tell me in writing.

“To date, our office is not aware of having received any instructions or requests from the Cabinet Office regarding this material.”

Whitehall officials are understood to be concerned about setting a precedent by handing over all the requested documents in unredacted form, rather than deciding what material is relevant and should be submitted to the inquiry.

Former head of the Civil Service Lord Kerslake told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers, but there’s also the Cabinet Office fighting for a principle of confidentiality.

“I have to say I think they’re misguided on this situation. I actually think it would set a helpful precedent if Lady Hallett prevailed in this fight about the information.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
The Cabinet Office said it did not have access to Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or personal notebooks (Andrew Boyers/PA)

In May the Cabinet Office resisted the request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and which also applies to messages from Mr Johnson’s former adviser Henry Cook.

In a ruling last week, Lady Hallett rejected the argument that the inquiry’s request was unlawful and said the Cabinet Office had “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation”.

Refusing to comply with the request would lead to a legal clash with the official inquiry.

The demand covers text conversations between Mr Johnson and a host of government figures, civil servants and officials.

The list includes England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, as well as then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

Messages with then-foreign secretary Liz Truss and then-health secretary Matt Hancock are also requested, as well as with former top aide Dominic Cummings and then-chancellor Mr Sunak.

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”.

In the note granting the extension, the inquiry said if the WhatsApp messages and notebooks cannot be produced, the Cabinet Office will need to provide witness statements from senior officials setting out what efforts have been made to find them, including contacts with Mr Johnson.

Officials will also have to explain whether the WhatsApp messages are on Mr Johnson’s personal phone or an official device.

The Cabinet Office must also explain whether it had either the messages or the former prime minister’s notebooks under its control at any time since February 3 and, if so, what happened to them.

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