Boris Johnson was told by the security services not to turn on his personal phone after his number was publicised online, meaning his WhatsApp messages from the height of the pandemic cannot be found, it has emerged.
The ex-prime minister kept his personal phone number that he had had for more than a decade when he entered No 10 and it was on this number and device that crucial messages were sent as the Covid pandemic unfolded in 2020.
The Cabinet Office revealed on Thursday that, in the cache of thousands of WhatsApp messages handed over by Mr Johnson’s office this week, there is no content from before May 2021.
In a fresh twist, Mr Johnson has written to Covid inquiry chair, Baroness Hallett, offering the full unredacted WhatsApp messages from after May 2021, as well as his 25 notebooks, directly to her team – despite the Government’s legal action resisting the handover.
Mr Johnson handed over the material to the Cabinet Office on Wednesday, before the Government launched a judicial review attempting to block disclosure of unredacted messages from all key figures, including Rishi Sunak and other serving ministers.
Lady Hallett’s inquiry has requested WhatsApps from Mr Johnson from January 2020 onwards, hoping they will give insight into how he and his government responded to the virus.
But in a major breach of security in May 2021, it was reported that his number was easily searchable on the internet, on a press release of a think-tank from around 2006.
Mr Johnson was told by security officials to turn off the device and never turn it on again in case it could be hacked by hostile actors, i understands. This means historic messages from 2020 and early 2021 are no longer available to search and the phone is not active.
The former prime minister, who still has possession of the device, has no objection to handing over the content on the phone to the inquiry, providing security officials and technical support can be offered by the Cabinet Office to ensure the messages can be retrieved without compromising security.
Sources close to Mr Johnson said the Cabinet Office had long been aware of the status of this phone.
Cabinet Office official Ellie Nicholson, who has tried to get the data from Mr Johnson, said in a statement: “The WhatsApp material [from Mr Johnson] is being reviewed for national security sensitivities and unambiguously irrelevant material and appropriate redactions are being applied.
“In that material, there are no WhatsApp communications before May 2021. 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.
“It is my understanding that Mr Johnson has possession of that device, and that it is a personal device. On 31 May the Cabinet Office spoke to Mr Johnson’s legal representatives to ask them to check with Mr Johnson that he has possession of the phone, and to confirm this to the Cabinet Office.
“The Cabinet Office explained that if the phone could be passed to the Government it could be assessed by security experts.
“On the morning of 1 June, the Cabinet Office emailed to chase for a response. We have not yet received a substantive response. As the Cabinet Office is not, I understand, in possession of the phone, any material stored on the phone is not in the Cabinet Office’s possession or control.”
In a letter to Lady Hallett on Thursday evening, Mr Johnson offered to hand over all of his material unredacted directly to her inquiry team.
He said: “I wish to make it clear to you personally and to your inquiry that I am more than happy to hand over the relevant WhatsApps and notebooks that you have requested in unredacted form.”
Mr Johnson said that while he agreed with the Cabinet Office position that in principle advice to ministers should not be made public, “I see no reason why the inquiry should not be able to satisfy itself about the contents of my own WhatsApps and notebooks, and to check the relevant WhatsApp conversations (about 40 of them) for anything that it deems relevant to the Covid inquiry.”