FORMER UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has directly handed over un-redacted WhatsApp messages to the independent public inquiry investigating the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This move has been seen as a tactic by Johnson to outmanoeuvre his former ally, Chancellor Rishi Sunak. The messages provided by Johnson are from May 2021 onwards, but he also expressed his desire to share messages from his old phone, which is currently inaccessible.
According to a former Number 10 adviser who worked closely with Johnson, this gesture by the ex-Prime Minister is not an attempt to initiate a fight but rather a retaliation. The adviser stated, “Boris is running rings around Number 10 on this. It’s out of retaliation, it’s not Boris picking the fight.”
Previously, Johnson had submitted relevant information to the Cabinet Office, but the office refused to comply with the inquiry’s request for all materials in unredacted form. Instead, the government pursued a high court judicial review to challenge the inquiry’s demand to release Johnson’s messages, diaries, and notebooks. The court will now have to determine whether the inquiry has exceeded its legal powers, setting the stage for a potential legal showdown.
In a letter addressed to Lady Heather Hallett, the head of the independent inquiry, Johnson expressed his willingness to share his material directly with the inquiry. He stated, “I am not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it. I am therefore providing the material directly to your inquiry today in unredacted form.” Johnson also mentioned his desire to share any relevant material from his old phone, despite being advised that it cannot be accessed securely. He emphasized the urgency of the request and the need to test the advice he received from security services.
Johnson’s statement drew attention from politicians and the public alike. Former Work & Pensions Secretary Esther McVey expressed her intrigue, saying, “I am intrigued to see the WhatsApp because I want to see how informal formal decisions were made.”
However, the government missed the deadline to share Johnson’s messages and notebooks, causing dissatisfaction among organizations representing bereaved families and opposition MPs. Elkan Abrahamson, the lawyer representing the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, criticized the Cabinet Office, saying, “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.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, of engaging in a “desperate attempt to withhold evidence” through the legal challenge. She added, “The public deserve answers, not another cover-up.” The Liberal Democrats also criticized the government, stating that it was a “kick in the teeth for bereaved families.”
In response, the Cabinet Office stressed that it was launching court proceedings “with regret” and argued that complying with Dame Hallett’s demands would lead to the sharing of “ambiguously irrelevant” material sent and received by ministers, creating an absurd scenario.
As the legal battle unfolds, the public awaits further developments in the COVID-19 inquiry, hoping for transparency and accountability in assessing the UK’s response to the pandemic.