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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Covid Inquiry Extends Deadline For Government To Hand Over Boris Johnson's Private Messages

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Alamy)

3 min read

The government has been granted a short extension to the deadline for handing over material to the Covid inquiry as questions grow over the status of Boris Johnson messages that are at the centre of a deepening row between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry chair.

The inquiry had initially given the Cabinet Office a deadline for 4pm Tuesday to produce unredacted WhatsApp messages and private notes written by the former prime minister during the pandemic as part of its investigation into the government's response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

However, a spokesperson for the inquiry said this morning that it had extended the deadline until the 4pm on Thursday, and confirmed that the Cabinet Office has since said it does not possess the material relating to Johnson. 

"The inquiry was informed that the Cabinet Office does not have in its possession either Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or Mr Johnson’s notebooks, as sought in the original section 21 Notice," a written update from the inquiry stated. “The chair rejected the request for an extension of time to June 5 2023, but granted a short extension to 4pm on Thursday June 1 2023.”

The government's disagreement with the Covid inquiry emerged last week when the latter's chair Lady Hallett accused the Cabinet Office of refusing to disclose messages and diary entries relating to Johnson, and said that she would be prepared to pursue legal action if the department did not change its position.

The government has insisted they are not obliged to hand over material that they have deemed "unambiguously irrelevant" to the inquiry's work. 

But today's developments have raised questions over the status of the Johnson messages and notes that the inquiry has requested, and whether they are even available regardless of their relevancy.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government is not required to keep all informal messages and notes sent and recorded by a prime minister, and that only "substantive and relative content" is preserved.

"The substantive and relative content, including decision making, is copied across to the official record in appropriate format for preservation. We wouldn't, as is standard, retain irrelevant material. There's no requirement to record every single communication for the public record," they said.

Government sources have sought to stress that there is a difference between formal diaries, which record details like the movements of a prime minister, and private notes or WhatsApps - even those between Johnson and other figures at the top of government at the time, including Sunak - which are at the heart of the row with the inquiry.

Speaking this morning, Sunak insisted the government was acting "in a spirit of transparency and candour”.

“The government has cooperated 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," he said.

Angela Rayner MP, Labour's Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said there was a "whiff of a cover-up" and that the material "must be found and handed over" to the inquiry.

"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.  

"While other countries across the world have already finalised their inquiries into the pandemic, it is essential that UK Government ministers now comply with their obligations so the public can get to the truth and those responsible can be held to account," she said.

A spokesperson for Johnson insisted that the ex-PM had "no objection to disclosing material to the inquiry”.

"He has done so and will continue to do so. The decision to challenge the inquiry's position on redactions is for the Cabinet Office," they said.

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