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Government Loses Legal Challenge To Avoid Handing Over Boris Johnson's Covid WhatsApps

The Cabinet Office has lost a legal challenge to withhold Boris Johnson's unredacted WhatsApp messages

3 min read

The Cabinet Office has lost a legal challenge to allow them to withhold Boris Johnson's unredacted WhatsApp messages from the Covid inquiry, after it previously claimed they were "unambiguously irrelevant".

In a ruling today, Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Garnham refused the Cabinet Office's judicial review of ruling that would force them hand over messages from figures at the top of the government during the pandemic, including the former prime minister and members of his Cabinet.  

The High Court said the Cabinet Office now must give all documents asked for by Baroness Heather Hallett, the Covid inquiry's chair. Baroness Hallet gave a section 21 notice to request all of the documents after the government initially refused to hand them over. 

The court ruled: "In our judgment the fact that the section 21 notice will yield some irrelevant documents does not invalidate the notice or mean that the section 21 [notice] cannot be lawfully exercised."

The Government said it "supports the important and necessary work of the Inquiry" into the Government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and will "comply" with the ruling. The Government added it accepted the order with "regret" after it questioned whether the inquiry had the power to "compel" senior politicians to hand over messages which it claimed were "unambiguously irrelevant".

"The request for unambiguously irrelevant material goes beyond the powers of the Inquiry. Individuals, junior officials, current and former Ministersand departments should not be required to provide material that is irrelevant to the Inquiry’s work. It represents an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government. It also represents an intrusion into their legitimate expectations of privacy and protection of their personal information," the Government said in a statement. 

Ahead of the Covid-19 inquiry, former Johnson handed over "all" of his WhatsApps and notebooks from his time in Downing Street during the pandemic to the inquiry panel. His spokesperson said Johnson wanted the Cabinet Office to do the same. 

Johnson's intervention looked to contradict the Cabinet Office's aim to hold some documents back, after they were criticsed for holding them back by Lady Hallet. However, the former prime minister's spokesperson said he did not want to purposefully "contradict" the Government's position.

Lady Hallet then ordered the Cabinet Office to hand over messages like Johnson did. However, the Government launched an appeal to stop this from happening. At the time the Cabinet Office argued 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". 

Today the Cabinet Office lost that appeal and have handed over the unredacted messages. 

Angela Rayner MP, Labour's Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, claimed the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had been "wasting time and taxpayers’ money" while fighting legal battles. 

“After this latest humiliating defeat, the Prime Minister must accept the ruling and comply with the Inquiry’s requests for evidence in full. 

“The public deserve answers, not more attempts by the Prime Minister to undermine the Covid Inquiry. There can be no more excuses for concealing the truth. It's time to hand over the evidence."

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