Row over official Covid inquiry rages on as ministers to decide TOMORROW whether to take legal action: Chairwoman leading the probe is demanding Boris Johnson’s redacted WhatsApp messages – but Cabinet Office says it’s an ‘intrusion of privacy’
- Cabinet Office refused to provide his WhatsApp messages and diaries to inquiry
- Inquiry chairwoman warned failure to comply would amoung to criminal offence
Ministers will decide tomorrow whether to launch legal action against the official Covid inquiry after it demanded the Government hand over unredacted messages from Boris Johnson.
The Cabinet Office has refused to provide all the former prime minister’s WhatsApp messages and diaries to inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett on the grounds that it would be a ‘serious intrusion of privacy’.
But she has warned that failure to comply with her section 21 order of the Inquiries Act to release the material would amount to a criminal offence.
The Cabinet Office is continuing to argue that the inquiry does not have the power to compel it to release material it deems ‘unambiguously irrelevant’ as it could set a harmful precedent.
It says it has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.
The Cabinet Office has refused to provide all the former prime minister’s WhatsApp messages and diaries to inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett (pictured) on the grounds that it would be a ‘serious intrusion of privacy’
The row comes after it emerged that the Cabinet Office had handed extracts from Mr Johnson’s (pictured) prime ministerial diaries to the police without telling him
Any legal challenge would also block the release of messages from Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor at the time, and around 40 other senior figures.
The Government has until 4pm tomorrow to decide whether to launch legal action to quash Lady Hallett’s demands, and sources said discussions were ongoing last night.
The first public hearings of the Covid inquiry are due to begin in a fortnight, and the outcome of the row is central to shaping it.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said last night: ‘We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 Inquiry. As such, extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.
‘We will continue to provide all relevant material to the inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting under way.’
The row comes after it emerged that the Cabinet Office had handed extracts from Mr Johnson’s prime ministerial diaries to the police without telling him.
The entries showed that he was visited by colleagues and friends at Chequers during the pandemic.
Last night a Cabinet Office source again insisted that ministers were ‘not aware before the police were contacted’. Mr Johnson has said the entries ‘merely record events in my day’.
Any legal challenge would also block the release of messages from Rishi Sunak (pictured), who was chancellor at the time, and around 40 other senior figures
Civil servants have also written to the Commons Privileges Committee, which is investigating whether Mr Johnson lied to Parliament when he said no lockdown rules were broken.
Mr Johnson is ‘furious’ about the move, and has threatened to sue the Government.
‘He was completely flabbergasted and he suspects foul play. He has been spitting feathers. He feels his reputation has been unfairly trashed,’ a source told The Sunday Times.
READ MORE – DANIEL JOHNSON: Former PM Boris Johnson being thrown to the wolves is an unedifying spectacle… will there ever be an end to the post-pandemic blame game?
The paper reported that on Friday the Privileges Committee, which was set to rule in the next two weeks on whether Mr Johnson had lied to MPs, wrote to his lawyers saying: ‘The Government has told us: ‘As part of their work preparing Boris Johnson’s witness statement for the Covid inquiry… the counsel team supporting Mr Johnson identified a number of diary entries as potentially problematic.
‘These entries are based on an assessment by the Government legal department as to events/activities which could reasonably be considered to constitute breaches of Covid regulations.’
Mr Johnson’s allies seized on the letter as evidence that the Government judged he had broken rules, which the Cabinet Office denies. Officials have said the ‘only assessment we did was whether we should pass it to the police’.
But Jeremy Quin, the Paymaster General, is understood to have approved the handing over of the documents. Mr Johnson is said to believe that Oliver Dowden, Mr Quin’s boss, ‘has form’.
A Whitehall source said: ‘Of course the Privileges Committee was told about the referral to the police once ministers were aware.
‘Imagine if the designated minister [Quin] had refused to tell a parliamentary committee about events he knew the police were looking into, and that would have come out in the public Covid inquiry anyway.
‘Mr Johnson can clear this up by publishing the information he has.’
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