The chairman of the Covid Inquiry has warned the government that private and personal WhatsApp messages sent by ministers and civil servants are central to her investigation into the government’s response to the pandemic and must be handed over.

In a statement on Tuesday setting out why it was still refusing to hand over unredacted messages to the inquiry, the Cabinet Office insisted that WhatsApps which were “entirely personal and relate to their private lives” were “unambiguously irrelevant” and should be off limits.

However, Baroness Hallett has made clear that she needs to see the entirety of ministers’ and officials’ messages, even those related to private matters, to form a complete picture of how the government responded to the pandemic in 2020.

The lack of focus on the virus in January and February of that year, particularly by Boris Johnson, is one of the key issues Lady Hallett will investigate under Module 2 of her inquiry, due to start in October.

In her legal notice published last week setting out her reasoning, Lady Hallett said: “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.

“Moreover, the need for me to investigate allegations that have been aired publicly regarding disagreements between members of the government and breaches of Covid-19 regulations by those within government provides a further basis upon which material such as diary arrangements and content which may not appear to relate directly to the response to Covid-19 are of at least potential relevance to the investigations that I am conducting.

“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.”

The Cabinet Office insists that releasing the material in full and unredacted form will set a harmful precedent and inhibit future policy-making by any government.

It argues that people who work for the government have a right to a private life.

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