The Government has launched a fresh legal bid to prevent the Covid public inquiry from making public key documents on its handling of the pandemic, i can reveal.
A preliminary hearing next Tuesday is expected to reveal that the Cabinet Office has applied for a so-called Section 19 order to tightly restrict the publication of even redacted messages, diary entries and other papers.
If the Inquiry agrees to the order, such documents cannot be shared with “core participants”, including the Covid Bereaved Families For Justice group.
The affected documents would be used to ‘inform’ the inquiry’s recommendations but would not be cited in any open hearings and would not be made public for years.
The new bid for secrecy may spark fresh accusations of an attempted cover-up, just days after the Government defied a request from Lady Hallett to hand over uncensored versions of all Whitehall documents linked to the Covid period and launched a judicial review instead.
On Friday, Boris Johnson wrote to the inquiry chair to say he would provide unredacted WhatsApp messages to her directly.
“I am not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it,” he wrote.
But the Section 19 order is seen as a fallback option should the courts rule, as expected, that the public inquiry should be given all the material it wishes without any content removed or blacked out by Whitehall officials.
Susie Flintham, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “It’s clear that the Cabinet Office are going to pull every trick in the book to try and stop the Inquiry from accessing crucial evidence in case it embarrasses them. It’s absolutely disgraceful.
“Over the past three years we have put aside our grief and thown everything we could into campaigning for this inquiry so that it could have access to all of the facts and learn lessons that will prevent others from going through the horrific pain that we have. But it seems the Cabinet Office are more interested in saving face than they are in saving lives.”
The Cabinet Office has already said it wants the right to censor any documents with national security implications, or that officials deem to be “unambiguously irrelevant” to Covid policies.
Under Section 19 of the 2005 Inquiries Act, it would be upto Lady Hallett to grant the latest request to restrict the publication of certain documents.
Previous inquiries into the Post Office scandal and the Leveson Inquiry into the media have seen Section 19 requests approved, in a bid to keep key figures anonymous or to hold back sensitive information.
A clue to the Government’s twin-track strategy emerged in its letter to the Covid Inquiry on Thursday, when it stated that it was “offering discussions on possible solutions which are proportionate, pragmatic, and consistent with the Terms of Reference and the 2005 Inquiries Act”.
On Thursday, the government missed a 4pm deadline to submit messages sent between Boris Johnson and 40 other ministers and officials during the pandemic and instead launched its own legal bid to query the inquiry’s powers.
Science minister George Freeman admitted to the BBC that he suspected the Government would lose its judicial review, which is expected this month.
Mr Freeman said the courts will probably take the view” that Baroness Hallett is entitled to decide “what evidence she deems relevant”.
Lord Gavin Barwell, who worked as chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May, said he thought the government was making a “bad mistake” by not handing over the full WhatsApp messages.
“We’re having the enquiry to give people confidence we’re getting to the truth. And if the government is controlling what the inquiry can and can’t see, then people are not going to get confidence in the outcome,” he said.
The Covid Inquiry begins its first public hearings on June 13, when its “Module One” will consider the resilience and preparedness of the UK in the decade before the pandemic.
Next week’s preliminary hearing will focus on the second phase of the inquiry, when Mr Johnson and other ministers will be quizzed on political decisions made after January 2020.