Bereaved relatives have accused Rishi Sunak of “sitting on evidence” of his role in the pandemic, after the Government announced plans to challenge the Covid inquiry‘s demand for the release of WhatsApp messages sent by dozens of ministers and officials including Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister.
In a letter released after a 4pm deadline to handover the material, the Cabinet Office said it was seeking a judicial review of chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s order, arguing that it should not have to supply material which is “unambiguously irrelevant”.
A spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, a campaign group made up of 6,000 relatives, suggested the Cabinet Office had demonstrated its willingness to shield Rishi Sunak’s reputation at the expense of the inquiry.
Rivka Gottlieb, whose father died from Covid in April 2020, said: “It’s absolutely obscene that the Cabinet Office is going to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on suing its own public inquiry into being unable to access critical evidence.
“Families like mine have done all we can to campaign for an inquiry that is across all of the facts and can learn lessons that will stop others going through the horrors that we have.
“Why are the Cabinet Office standing in their way? You have to assume that they’re sitting on evidence that will devastate Rishi Sunak’s reputation and that’s more important to them than saving lives in the future.”
The inquiry into the UK’s preparedness for and response to the Covid-19 pandemic is set to begin its public hearings next month. Its first stage will cover the period from 2010 to January 2020, when the first cases of Covid-19 arrived in the UK.
In May, Baroness Hallett issued a legal notice requesting Mr Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp communications, his official diaries from between January 2020 and February 2022, together with 24 notebooks, revealing for the first time the scale of notes taken by the former prime minister while in office.
The unredacted transcripts are thought to include conversations between Mr Johnson and other key figures in the Government, including Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock.
While the focus of the initial phase of the inquiry is on the decade leading up to the pandemic, Mr Johnson’s role in the Government’s response, along with that of Mr Sunak and Mr Hancock, will come under scrutiny later on.
In its letter to the inquiry on Thursday, the Cabinet Office said it had provided “as much relevant information as possible, and as quickly as possible” in line with the Lady Hallett’s order.
But the Government said it considered there were “important issues of principle at stake” affecting the rights of individuals and “the proper conduct of government”.
The letter added: “Individuals, junior officials, current and former ministers and departments should not be required to provide material that is irrelevant to the inquiry’s work.
“It represents an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government. It also represents an intrusion into their legitimate expectations of privacy and protection of their personal information.”
It comes after a senior civil servant told the inquiry that Mr Johnson’s lawyers have not provided a “substantive response” to a request from the Cabinet Office for his old mobile phone.
The former prime minister publicly claimed he had handed the material over on Wednesday.
In her statement, Ellie Nicholson said the Cabinet Office had received Mr Johnson’s WhatsApps, but the material does not include messages from before May 2021.
Ms Nicholson’s statement said: “I understand that this is because, in April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach, Mr Johnson implemented security advice relating to the mobile phone he had had up until that time.”
Mr Johnson was forced to change his mobile in 2021 after it emerged his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.
Mr Johnson’s notebooks will be shared with the Covid inquiry in batches as the Cabinet Office did not have enough time to redact them after they were handed over, the inquiry was told.