The Government is facing a looming deadline to release Boris Johnson’s unredacted messages and diaries to the official inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic.
If the former prime minister’s correspondence is not handed over by the deadline, the Government may face a legal dispute.
Mr Johnson insisted on Wednesday that he has handed over the required material to the Cabinet Office and urged officials to pass the contents on to Baroness Hallett’s inquiry.
Here’s what we can expect to happen next:
When is the WhatsApp messages deadline?
The Cabinet Office must hand over Mr Johnson’s unredacted WhatApp messages and diaries by 4pm today to avoid a legal dispute.
The Government has already missed a previous deadline set for 4pm on Tuesday 30 May, but asked for an extension as it said it was not in possession of the required data.
On Wednesday Mr Johnson said he has given the UK government all the WhatsApp messages and notebooks demanded by the Covid-19 inquiry.
He urged the Government to hand the material over in full without any redactions.
What is the inquiry asking for?
However, last week the chairman of the inquiry into the pandemic, Baroness Hallett, criticised the Cabinet Office for redacting certain information.
In a letter to the Cabinet Office, she said this included “discussions between the Prime Minister and his advisers about the enforcement of Covid regulations by the Metropolitan Police during the public demonstrations following the murder of Sarah Everard”.
The Court of Appeal judge made plain that it was for her and her team to decide the relevance of documents, not the Government.
In response to resistance from the Cabinet Office, Lady Hallett issued a section 21 order requiring the full disclosure of the WhatsApp messages and diaries.
What will happen next?
If the Cabinet Office does not hand the documents over, the Government could in theory be committing a criminal offence, as it would be failing to comply with an order made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005.
The Act states that anyone who fails to comply could be subject to a fine of up to £1,000, 51 weeks in prison, or both.
Lady Hallett could also refer the matter to the High Court, which would rule on whether or not the documents should be disclosed.
However, the Government could also decide to challenge the order and call a judicial review, but this would need to be done by early next week, as it would only have 14 days from the initial order.
Public hearings for the inquiry are due to begin in two weeks’ time, starting off with a focus on how prepared the UK was for a pandemic before Covid began.
It will also study:
- the Government’s decision-making and political governance,
- the impact of the pandemic on healthcare services,
- vaccines and treatments,
- the effect on the care sector,
- Government procurement and PPE,
- testing and tracing,
- the financial response
- the consequences for education and young people.