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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Archie Mitchell

Downing Street denies ‘cover up’ over Cabinet Office refusal to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApps

Getty/The Independent

Downing Street has denied the row over the disclosure of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and notebooks to the Covid inquiry is a “cover-up”.

Pressure was moutning on Rishi Sunak to reveal the former prime minister’s messages during the Covid crisis after an ex-mandarin said they were being withheld to spare ministers “embarrassment”.

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, backed demands for the Cabinet Office to drop its refusal to hand over Mr Johnson’s unredacted Whatsapps to the official Covid inquiry.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he agreed that protecting ministerial confidentiality was important but added: “There is some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers.”

The Cabinet Office, which has supported Mr Johnson’s refusal to reveal his private messages during the pandemic, was “misguided on this occasion”, said the peer.

He added that it would be “helpful” if Covid chair Lady Hallett, who insists the messages are disclosed to establish the truth about Mr Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, “prevailed in this fight”.

But responding to Lord Kerslake’s criticism, and asked whether there was a “cover up”, Rishi Sunkak’s official spokesman said: “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.”

The Cabinet Office now has until 4pm on Tuesday to respond to inquiry chair Lady Hallett’s request for messages and diaries belonging to Mr Johnson. The deadline was extended by 48 hours as the inquiry said it does not have Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or notebooks.

The Covid-19 Inquiry has said that if the Cabinet Office still maintains its position that it does not hold Boris Johnson’s material when the 4pm on Thursday deadline arrives, it must provide in substitute a “witness statement” from a senior civil servant to that effect.

If ministers block the request to turn over official records, which show what was happening at the heart of government during the pandemic, the department faces being dragged to court.

The government has so far refused to release some material, claiming it is "unambiguously irrelevant" to the inquiry. But Lady Hallett has argued she should be able to decide whether materials are relevant or not.

No decision has been taken on whether to disclose the materials to the inquiry - ordered by Mr Johnson himself in May 2021.

Lord Kerslake, who ran the civil service between 2012 and 2014, told BBC’s Radio 4 Today show: “There’s some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers. But there’s also the Cabinet Office fighting for a principle of confidentiality.

"I have to say I think they’re misguided on this situation. I actually think it would set a helpful precedent if Lady Hallett prevailed in this fight about the information.

"We are in a bit of a mess at the moment, we don’t really know whether WhatsApp’s been used as a decision-making tool or, indeed, as just an information-sharing device.”

Referring to former health secretary Matt Hancock handing over WhatsApp exchanges to Isabel Oakeshott from his time in cabinet, he added: "We’ve got the extraordinary situation where Matt Hancock handed over a whole sheath of WhatsApp messages to a journalist without any apparent sanction under the official secrets act.

“Surely this case for seeing the documents in one of our most important inquiries, probably since Iraq, must be much more compelling than that."

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

But the inquiry is also seeking unredacted messages 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.

The inquiry has 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".

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