Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are willing to hand over all of their WhatsApps and emails directly to the Covid Inquiry amid the ongoing standoff over information disclosure at the heart of government, i understands.
Messages sent to and from the former prime minister and health secretary are central to Baroness Hallett’s investigation into how the government responded to the virus in early 2020.
The Cabinet Office, which has been collecting all of the material from key figures in government at the height of the pandemic, is refusing to hand over the content unredacted, insisting that large parts of it is irrelevant to the inquiry and would set a dangerous precedent.
A spokesperson for Mr Johnson said the ex-PM has “no objection” to the material being disclosed in full, and it was the Cabinet Office’s decision to challenge the inquiry over redactions.
Mr Johnson has hired his own legal team to represent him at the inquiry after he sacked the Cabinet Office lawyers assigned to him last week when new details of meetings at No10 and Chequers during covid restrictions were passed to police and the Privileges Committee.
Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages sent during 2020 are with this new legal team.
Some 24 A4 notebooks handwritten by the then prime minister between January 2020 and February 2022 are also with his new lawyers and Mr Johnson is happy for them to be handed over.
Mr Hancock, who was health secretary for the first 18 months of the pandemic, is happy to present his messages directly to Lady Hallett’s team if the Cabinet Office refuses to back down over redacted material, i understands.
His messages are currently with the government’s legal department, based in the Cabinet Office.
A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said: “Matt has made all his records and materials available to the inquiry without making any redactions for relevance.
“Matt feels very strongly that full transparency is vital so all lessons can be learned.”
Mr Hancock is understood to have offered the inquiry directly all of his unredacted material but the inquiry team requested that they be provided via the government legal department, which is part of the Cabinet Office.
However, if the standoff continues he could take steps for them to be passed on directly, i understands.
It emerged on Tuesday that WhatsApps written by Mr Johnson were not in the hands of the Cabinet Office so could not be handed over by the deadline set by Lady Hallett, which has now been moved to 4pm on Thursday.
It is understood that these WhatsApps are ones sent in 2020 to and from Mr Johnson’s personal phone that he used throughout the pandemic.
Mr Johnson was told to give up this number in 2021 after it emerged that it was freely available on the internet from a 2006 document uploaded by a think tank.
This personal phone was turned off and the number deactivated, but the WhatsApp messages were held and have since been downloaded and passed to his legal team for disclosure to the inquiry.
It is not known whether personal WhatsApps from Mr Johnson to family and friends, on issues unrelated to Covid, will be held back from the disclosure process.
The legal wrangling between the Cabinet Office and Lady Hallett’s team will not delay the start of full public hearings of the inquiry, which is scheduled for 13 June, i understands.
This is because the first hearings relate to Module 1, which will focus on whether the government was prepared for a covid pandemic, while WhatsApps from Mr Johnson and other senior figures will form key evidence for Module 2, which will deal with how ministers responded to the virus in 2020.
Public hearings for that second module are not due to start until October this year. Mr Johnson is expected to be called to give evidence that month.
However the inquiry itself is likely to go on for at least three more years, it emerged on Tuesday.
Lady Hallett has announced three more modules in addition to the current three, which will focus on vaccines, government procurement and care homes.
The last of these modules will not begin taking oral evidence until spring 2025 and the public hearings are not expected to be completed until the summer of 2026, the inquiry announced.
This means that it could be 2027 when Lady Hallett’s full and final report is published, although she has committed to releasing interim reports for each module throughout the process.
The first report, on the government’s pandemic preparedness, is expected next year.