'Cover-up': Sunak under pressure over Johnson's 'missing' WhatsApp messages

The Covid-19 inquiry has told the government that it must tell them where Boris Johnson's Covid WhatApp messages and diaries are before 4pm on Thursday, Carl Dinnen reports

Ministers have been urged to find Boris Johnson's missing WhatsApp messages, after the deadline for sharing them with the Covid-19 Inquiry was extended.

A legal battle awaits if the ex-prime minister's messages, diaries and notebooks are not provided, unredacted, to the public inquiry by Thursday at 4pm.

But the Cabinet Office, which has been threatened with court action over a refusal to share all documentation concerning the former PM, has said it does not hold the information being requested.

It had been given until Tuesday at 4pm to share the documents but the deadline was delayed by almost a week to give the Cabinet Office time to find them.

Inquiry chair Lady Hallett had rejected a request from the Cabinet Office to extend the deadline until June 5.

Labour urges Sunak to find the documents to avoid accusations of a cover-up

Labour said the evidence from Mr Johnson that has seemingly "gone missing" must be found and presented to the Covid-19 inquiry to avoid the "whiff of a cover-up".

Deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "The fact the Covid inquiry has invoked legal powers to compel the handover of crucial documents in the face of legal battles and delaying tactics shows this is a government with much to hide.

"It now appears that vital evidence has gone missing. It must be found and handed over as requested if the whiff of a cover-up is to be avoided and bereaved families are to get the answers they deserve.

"It is for the Covid inquiry itself rather than Conservative ministers to decide what is and is not relevant material for its investigation, and this interference only serves to undermine the inquiry's crucial job of getting to the truth."

Labour's Wes Steeting accuses the government of being 'slippery'

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said that “failing to hand over the evidence in full, as requested by the chair of the Covid inquiry, would make a mockery of this whole process and would be yet another insult to bereaved families still waiting for justice”.

“It looks like Rishi Sunak is too worried about upsetting Boris Johnson and his allies to do the right thing.

“The public deserve the whole truth about what went wrong. Vital evidence shouldn’t be kept secret just to spare ministers’ blushes.”

Sunak denies cover-up and insists the government is cooperating

Rishi Sunak insisted the government cooperating with the inquiry while 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."

Rishi Sunak said the government is fully co-operating with the inquiry

Asked if he was prepared to see people potentially fined or imprisoned over a refusal to share documents, Mr Sunak repeated similar answers from earlier in the interview, saying "again the government is carefully considering its next steps. It's confident of its position".

It appears unlikely the government will share the information without a legal challenge, with Downing Street claiming the documentation being requested is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

Number 10, however, suggested the ex-PM could handover the documents himself if he wanted to.

"It is down to individuals to decide what personal information they are able to hand over, but there is a process for the government-owned material," said Number 10.

"There's a distinction between government-owned material, that would need to be disclosed by the government, if it was their own personal information, then obviously they are able to make a judgment."

The PM's official spokesman flatly denied the allegation of a cover-up, saying: "No. We want to learn the lessons about the actions of the state during the pandemic, we want that to be done rigorously and candidly."

How did we get here?

Mr Johnson was referred to police over potential coronavirus breaches last Tuesday after the Cabinet Office found diary entries which suggested he may have broken rules when hosting gatherings at Chequers, the prime ministerial country retreat.

The former PM has dismissed accusations of wrongdoing at the Buckinghamshire mansion as "a load of absolute nonsense."

He has already been fined by police once over Covid breaches, after officers found wide-spread rule-breaking on Downing Street under Mr Johnson's leadership.

The latest row was sparked by a legal request sent by the inquiry on April 28 for a number of materials, including redacted WhatsApp messages and diaries related of the former prime minister between January 2020 and February 2022.

Whitehall officials are 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.

In May, the Cabinet Office pushed back against the request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and which also applies to messages from former adviser Henry Cook.

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

Baroness Heather Hallett Credit: Nick Ansell/PA

Refusing to comply with the request would lead to a legal clash with the official inquiry, raising the possibility of ministers seeking a judicial review of the probe’s powers.

The Cabinet Office says it has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.

A spokesman said: “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.”

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What are the missing documents?

According to the notice seeking the unredacted messages, the inquiry is requesting 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 Rishi Sunak.

Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and then prime minister Boris Johnson. Credit: PA

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”.

Mr Sunak's spokesman said there is no requirement to "permanently store or record every WhatsApp", with messages related to decision-making instead copied over to the official record.

Mr Johnson's office 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.

"The decision to challenge the inquiry's position on redactions is for the Cabinet Office."

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

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 Inquiry. As such, the Cabinet Office alone has already provided upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements and extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the Inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.“However, we are firmly of the view that the Inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation. This includes the Whatsapp messages of government employees’ which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”When will the Covid inquiry start and end?

The inquiry's first substantive hearing is set to take place in two weeks, assessing the UK's preparedness for the pandemic.

Module one of the inquiry is scheduled to begin on June 13 and Lady Hallett has confirmed she aims to conclude public hearings by summer 2026.

"Last year, I promised I would work hard to ensure the whole of the UK can learn useful lessons from the pandemic as quickly as possible," she said.

"Today I am providing greater clarity on our investigations and the likely end point for the inquiry's hearings."

An investigation into government procurement during the pandemic will be opened as part of the inquiry.

A statement added: "The inquiry is aiming to complete public hearings by summer 2026."

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