Inquiry chairman Baroness Hallett has insisted she needs the content in full because the inquiry will cover “great breadth” and she is likely to undertake “a large number of extremely diverse lines of investigation” that may not be immediately obvious.
But the Cabinet Office insists that exchanges between ministers and officials unrelated to Covid, including personal messages that could invade the privacy of individuals involved, come under the heading of “unambiguously irrelevant”.
Does this mean that, for example, a WhatsApp message sent in February 2020, from Boris Johnson to his then fiance Carrie Symonds, discussing a personal matter should be handed over to the inquiry?
Lady Hallett’s order published last week, in which she set out why she wants the unredacted material, suggests she deems something like this is relevant – particularly if it shows the PM was spending more time on his private life than handling the pandemic.
To put it bluntly, messages between senior government figures unrelated to Covid will tell their own story about the government’s pandemic response, the chairman believes.
Lady Hallett says she needs to examine if a key figure was spending more time on a policy issue not related to Covid, at a crucial point in the early stages of the pandemic, and devoting not enough time to the virus response.
She says: “I may also be required to investigate the personal commitments of ministers and other decision-makers during the time in question.
“There is, for example, well-established public concern as to the degree of attention given to the emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020 by the then Prime Minister.”
From the Cabinet Office’s point of view, however, releasing all the material in full, related to several individuals, would set a dangerous precedent for the conduct of government business and handling of official data.
But these messages also have the potential to cause embarrassment for some of the people involved.
The leak of tens of thousands of WhatsApps sent to and from Matt Hancock to the Daily Telegraph earlier this year gives a flavour of the sort of content that could cause red faces in Whitehall.
Attempts at humour – for example, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s messages to Mr Hancock in which he gloated about first class air passengers going into a “Premier Inn shoebox” of a quarantine hotel – may be regarded by the Cabinet Office as “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry.
Lady Hallett, it is clear from her section 21 notice, would see it differently and thinks this kind of material should be handed over.
The inquiry chairman is keen to draw from as wide an array of primary source material as possible in conducting her investigations.
While these kinds of messages are likely to be redacted for public consumption, the disclosure to the inquiry will still be highly awkward for those involved.