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Revealed: Government’s fight to withhold evidence from Covid-19 inquiry

Headache deepens for Cabinet Office as it deems information about alleged Chequers gatherings ‘irrelevant’ to inquiry

Ruby Lott-Lavigna
24 May 2023, 11.51am

The Cabinet Office has refused to hand over WhatsApp messages between Boris Johnson and key government figures to the Covid-19 inquiry


Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo / Pexels (image editing by James Battershill)

The Cabinet Office is refusing to hand information about Boris Johnson’s latest alleged lockdown breaches to the official Covid-19 inquiry – and has removed key details from other evidence it has already shared, a damning letter from the inquiry’s chair has revealed.

Heather Hallett this week wrote to the department dismissing its legal attempt to hold onto WhatsApp messages sent between Johnson and senior government ministers, civil servants and their advisers during the pandemic, as well as messages from one of Johnson’s own advisers.

Cabinet Office officials had also refused to hand over diaries taken by Johnson during the pandemic, and notebooks that the inquiry has been told contain contemporaneous notes. openDemocracy has already spent more than a year fighting the Cabinet Office over the release of Johnson’s ministerial diaries from the peak of the pandemic, alongside those of other ministers.

The revelations come in the wake of a Cabinet Office decision to refer Johnson to the police for possible lockdown breaches, after its own review of the diaries in preparation for the inquiry appeared to show friends visiting him at Chequers during lockdown. Johnson denies any Covid rules were broken and has rounded on the Cabinet Office for not consulting him first.

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The row may explain why the department, which has yet to respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment, has been reluctant to hand them over.

But Hallett’s letter also reveals the Cabinet Office has attempted to redact “important passages” in other documents already handed over. The department had removed information about the Met Police’s widely condemned handling of the Sarah Everard memorial during lockdown from earlier documents submitted to the inquiry because the Cabinet Office unilaterally decided it was “unambiguously irrelevant”.

In an apparent own goal, the Cabinet Office supplied the freshly unredacted documents to prove to the inquiry that its definition of “irrelevant” was appropriate. Hallett’s letter made clear that she did not share this view, and described the redactions of potentially relevant material as “not a promising start”.

Hallett said in her letter it would be wrong for any department or individual to decide whether or not its own evidence was relevant, writing: “In this case the document holder is a government department, but, in another, it might be, for example, an… entity suspected of criminality.”

It is a criminal offence under the Inquiries Act 2005 to intentionally suppress or conceal documents from a public inquiry if the chair has requested evidence and documents from an individual or organisation.

Downing Street today appeared to stand by the Cabinet Office, saying: “It's our position that the inquiry does not have the power to compel the government to disclose unambiguously irrelevant material.”


“The fact that the Cabinet Office has asserted that matters such as ‘entirely separate policy areas with which the inquiry is not concerned’ and ‘diary arrangements unconnected to the Covid-19 response’ are ‘unambiguously irrelevant’ to the work of my inquiry demonstrates that it has misunderstood the breadth of the investigation that I am undertaking,” Hallett writes in one passage of the eight-page letter.

The inquiry is legally entitled to request documents so long as they are “potentially relevant” to the areas it is investigating.

Cabinet Office chiefs now have until 4pm on 30 May 2023 to hand over the information.

Johnson has also written to the inquiry saying he was unaware of a notice requesting his messages and notebooks, and was not involved in the refusal to hand these over. He writes that he has already shared “over 5,000 pages of documents and over 300 pages of emails,” and requested a delay to the publication of Hallett’s letter.

Rivka Goettlib, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group, applauded Hallett for challenging the Cabinet Office.

"This inquiry needs to get to the facts if it is to learn lessons to help save lives in the next pandemic,” she told openDemocracy. “It’s outrageous that they think they can dictate to an independent inquiry which of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages they can see. With the revelations that have come out yesterday about him breaking lockdown rules, you really do fear the worst about what they’re hiding.”

It is not the first time the government has refused to give up key documents relating to Covid-19, which has so far contributed to the deaths of at least 226,000 people in the UK, nearly 500 of them in the last week alone, and left many more struggling with long-term health conditions or facing financial ruin. In April, Britain’s transparency watchdog ruled that the government must publish Matt Hancock’s ministerial diary following a two-year legal battle against openDemocracy.

The Covid-19 inquiry will begin hearing evidence on 23 June. Former ministers such as David Cameron and George Osborne could be interviewed during this stage of the inquiry, where policies like austerity will be scrutinised for how they may have contributed to the country’s ability to prepare for a pandemic.

Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed the inquiry had contracted Tory-linked PR firms to manage the voices of bereaved families, stoking the anger of those who had lost loved ones.

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