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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Rachael Burford

Covid inquiry not backing down in Boris Johnson WhatsApp messages row

The chairwoman of the Covid inquiry on Tuesday showed no signs of backing down in the row with the Government over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages.

Baroness Heather Hallett addressed ministers’ decision to launch legal action in a bid to prevent the Cabinet Office handing over the former PM’s unredacted messages and notebooks from during the pandemic.

The deadline to submit the information was missed last week and the Government instead announced it would challenge the request in courts with a judicial review.

At a preliminary inquiry hearing on Tuesday morning Lady Hallett said: “As has been widely reported, an issue has arisen between the inquiry and the Cabinet Office as to who decides what is relevant or potentially relevant.

“I issued a notice under Section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 making it clear that in my view, it is for inquiry tries to decide what is relevant or potentially relevant.

“The Cabinet Office disagrees... They invited me to withdraw the Section 21 Notice, I declined.”

She added that she would be making no further comment while the court fight was pending.

Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin defended the Government’s legal move in the Commons yesterday, telling MPs that the High Court case would mean it was lawyers and not politicians who would decide “what is and what is not relevant information” for the inquiry.

Mr Quin told MPs that he expected judges to hear the Government’s judicial review “on or shortly after June 30”.

He denied accusations of a cover-up, saying that all Government correspondence relating to the handling of the pandemic would be “made transparently available” to Lady Hallett’s investigation.

But he repeated the Cabinet Office’s argument that the inquiry, in its request for Mr Johnson’s unredacted messages and notes, was asking for information ministers deemed to be “unambiguously irrelevant” and that had “nothing to do with Covid” decision-making.

Conservative MPs criticised the Government's position, however, arguing it should be for Lady Hallett to decide what was relevant to her investigation.

Veteran MP Sir Edward Leigh said: “Let them have what they want and let's get to the truth.”

Mr Johnson has also argued that he has no concerns about handing over the information.

The Government is “willing to agree another way forward”, Downing Street stressed when asked whether it is committed to going ahead with legal action against the Covid inquiry.

Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said: “You heard from the minister that we remain hopeful and willing to agree together the best way forward.

“Obviously we have explored other possibilities for resolution previously. So obviously we continue to speak to the inquiry. And as I say, we are willing to agree another way forward.”

Tuesday’s preliminary hearing focused on the core political and administrative decision making by the Government when Covid hit. It considered how the investigation should be run rather than taking evidence.

The first evidence session is due to take place next week, with Lady Hallett set to hear from witnesses about Britain’s pandemic preparedness and resilience.

Public hearings are scheduled to conclude by summer 2026, with interim reports published before then.

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