The row between the UK government and the official public inquiry into Covid-19 escalated on Tuesday, as the probe’s legal team accused Whitehall departments of being slow to provide a range of evidence.
Hugo Keith KC, chief adviser to the inquiry, said the analysis of how ministers handled the pandemic had been placed under “severe time constraints” due to delays on the part of officials, and witnesses would begin giving oral statements next week testimonials.
Among several raids, he said deadlines had gone “unanswered” regarding the government’s use of the Google Spaces messaging system and that there had been “unacceptable” difficulties in the disclosure of communications between London and the UK’s devolved administrations.
His claims follow Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision last week to take legal action to block the release of unredacted messages from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the WhatsApp platform. They were echoed by research chair Baroness Heather Hallett, who said: “The more delay there is, the greater the pressure on everyone.”
Government representative Nicholas Chapman told the hearing that the row over the unredacted messages had arisen despite “all efforts to reach an agreement” and that it was a “regrettable but genuine difference of legal opinion”.
The judicial review to prevent the release of Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages is likely to take place in the High Court in London at the end of this month or shortly after, the inquiry found.
Chapman said the Cabinet Office had already provided more than 1,000 pages of WhatsApp messages, as well as details of Google Spaces groups, and “prioritised the review of certain (Google Spaces) groups according to an agreed timetable”.
However, Keith said: “With respect to a number of entities, there has been no timely response. . . necessitating repeated extensions of deadlines.
“I want to emphasize the absolute necessity on the part of those government departments to adhere to these final deadlines,” he added.
Keith also disclosed that the investigation had struck a deal with the Cabinet Office for a compromised mobile phone used by Johnson between February 2020 and April 2021 to be “provided to the appropriate person in government to download its contents” .
Johnson stopped using the phone in April 2021 over a security breach, the inquiry heard, and his aides said last week he had been advised not to turn it on again.
Heard during the hearing that the Cabinet Office intends to “consider its position” before committing to handing over all messages recovered from the compromised device to the inquiry. The messages the former Prime Minister has provided so far date from May 2021, almost a year after the pandemic began.
Thalia Maragh, lawyer representing Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, a campaign group, said: “The behavior of the Cabinet Office sounds like embezzlement.”
However, government insiders criticized Hallett’s recent demands for material the Cabinet Office considers “unequivocally irrelevant”, saying the inquiry had previously complained about too much irrelevant information being submitted.
In April, the inquiry penalized the Department for Leveling Up for late submission of “irrelevant” material whose “much too detailed . . . nature” caused “considerable difficulties” in preparation for hearings.
The department then identified 3,000 documents from the filing that more closely matched the inquiry’s request.