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The UK government is taking legal action over Johnson’s Covid messages


Rishi Sunak’s government took legal action on Thursday to block the release of Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages to the official public inquiry into Covid-19.

But in a new twist, it emerged that Johnson had only given the government notices related to the period after May 2021 when he bought a new phone; by then the worst of the Covid crisis was over.

The two developments led Labor to claim that both Sunak and Johnson were trying to thwart the inquiry, which was set up to learn lessons from the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The decision to request a judicial review to block the release of “unambiguously irrelevant” unredacted posts puts Sunak at odds with the head of the investigation, former Judge Baroness Heather Hallett.

The Cabinet Office said it took the legal step “with regret” and sought to protect “the rights of individuals and the good conduct of government”.

It revealed that Johnson had only given it communications from May 2021 – more than a year after the pandemic hit Britain and the same month he announced the Covid investigation.

Johnson’s allies said he bought a new phone that month after a security breach and was told by security officials never to turn on the old device. “The effect is that historical messages are no longer available to search and the phone is idle,” said one ally.

Johnson, who still has the old phone, has written to the cabinet to see if messages can be retrieved “without compromising security”. Johnson’s allies said they had “no idea” if this would be possible.

Johnson also wrote to Hallett on Thursday to say he was “more than happy to hand over the relevant WhatsApps and notebooks you requested in unredacted form” and that he was willing to send them directly to her.

Hallett had given the government until 4pm on Thursday to hand over unredacted material related to Johnson’s time as prime minister, including WhatsApp messages and notebooks.

But at 4:20pm the Cabinet Office announced it would seek permission to launch a judicial review, arguing that Hallett was overstepping her legal powers by demanding the entire cache of raw material.

In Whitehall, there is an awareness that the decision whether or not to submit Johnson’s communications unredacted will set a precedent for what other ministers – including Sunak himself – may need to hand over to Hallett’s team at a later date.

Sunak was chancellor during the pandemic and was skeptical of lockdowns and warned of the economic damage they would cause.

“The request for unequivocally irrelevant material falls outside the powers of the investigation,” said the cabinet. Hallett has argued that she must decide whether or not material is relevant.

Labor said both Sunak and Johnson were “playing games at the expense of the public”, while Labor deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Sunak of taking part in a “desperate attempt to withhold evidence”.

“After 13 years of the Tory scandal, these latest smoke and mirror tactics only serve to undermine the Covid investigation. The public deserves answers, not another cover-up,” she said.

Sunak previously said at a summit in Moldova that the government was “confident in our position”. He stressed the importance of learning lessons from the pandemic and approaching the investigation “in a spirit of rigor, but also of transparency and honesty”.

The government has handed over more than 55,000 documents and “will of course continue to comply with the law” and “cooperate with the investigation,” Sunak said.

Officials have accused the investigation of an “absolutist” approach to material disclosure, but stressed that the bickering over the case was not confrontational.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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