Cabinet Office loses fight against Covid inquiry bid for Boris Johnson's WhatsApps

The Covid inquiry has sought former PM Boris Johnson's WhatApp messages. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The Cabinet Office has lost its legal challenge over the Covid-19 Inquiry's request to see all of Boris Johnson's unredacted Whatsapp messages, notebooks and diaries.

High Court judges handed down their decision over the Government’s judicial review of Baroness Heather Hallett’s order on Thursday, saying she had "acted rationally".

It now has until Monday afternoon to hand over the material - a deadline passed on my Lady Hallett who is said to be "pleased" the court upheld her order.

The Cabinet Office brought legal action over the inquiry, refusing to provide the documents on the basis Lady Hallett's request was “so broad” that it was “bound to catch” a large amount of irrelevant material.

But in their judgement, the judges said the claim that an order for material would produce "some irrelevant documents" did not "invalidate" it or mean it "cannot be lawfully exercised".

Lawyers for the department argued the inquiry does not have the legal power to force ministers to release messages and records it claims cover matters “unconnected to the Government’s handling of Covid.”

However, Hugo Keith KC, for the inquiry chairwoman, said the idea that the Cabinet Office could decide which aspects were relevant “would emasculate this and future inquiries”.

And Lord David Pannick KC, on behalf of the former prime minister, argued there is a “real danger” of undermining public confidence in the process if the department wins its bid.

The Government took the highly unusual step of launching the challenge in June, in a move which attracted criticism after days of public wrangling between the Cabinet Office and Lady Hallett’s probe.

The former prime minister handed over his unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and 24 notebooks to the Cabinet Office in late May, backing Lady Hallett's request.

The Covid Inquiry, chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, has started hearing public evidence. Credit: Covid-19 Inquiry

Responding to the ruling, the Cabinet Office said it will "comply fully" with the judgement, stressing its judicial review application was "valid".

A government spokesperson said: "The inquiry is an important step to learn lessons from the pandemic and the Government is co-operating in the spirit of candour and transparency.

"As this judgment acknowledges, our judicial review application was valid as it raised issues over the application of the Inquiries Act 2005 that have now been clarified.

"The court's judgment is a sensible resolution and will mean that the inquiry chair is able to see the information she may deem relevant, but we can work together to have an arrangement that respects the privacy of individuals and ensures completely irrelevant information is returned and not retained.

"We will comply fully with this judgment and will now work with the inquiry team on the practical arrangements."

The Cabinet Office could respond to Lady Hallett's order by making an application "that it is unreasonable to produce material which does not relate to a matter in question at the inquiry".

"It will be for the chair of the inquiry to rule on that application," the judges said.

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