The UK Covid-19 Inquiry is an independent public inquiry which was announced back in May 2021. The Inquiry laid out aims to examine the British government’s handling of the pandemic and “learn lessons for the future”.
Public hearings for the Covid-19 Inquiry do not start until later this month, but details of the investigation are already a key talking point because of an ongoing row between its chair and ministers.
Here is the latest on the Boris Johnson WhatsApp dispute and Covid-19 Inquiry schedule.
When did the Covid Inquiry start?
In December 2021, Mr Johnson, then prime minister, appointed Baroness Heather Hallett as the Inquiry chair.
The Covid Inquiry officially opened module one, the first stage of its investigation in July 2022.
The first Covid-19 Inquiry public hearings will start on 13 June.
Why is there a row over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages?
Information in diaries, WhatsApp messages and emails which contain details of how the ex-prime minister responded to the virus and restrictions were redacted by Cabinet Office officials before they were handed over to the Covid-19 Inquiry team.
The Cabinet Office has maintained much of the material is “unambiguously irrelevant” to the investigation and raised concerns over the impact on ministers’ privacy.
But Baroness Hallett has demanded the correspondence be handed over. She dismissed the Cabinet Office’s legal arguments and used her full statutory power to issue a Section 21 notice demanding full access.
It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with the notice, subject to a fine not exceeding £1,000 or imprisonment for a maximum of 51 weeks.
Covid-19 bereaved relatives and campaigners have called the Government’s response to the Inquiry’s demands “disrespectful”.
The row deepened on Thursday after the Cabinet Office failed to meet the deadline to submit the evidence and launched legal action against the Inquiry.
Mr Johnson, who handed over his notebooks and diary to the Cabinet Office, which is the official channel for all material relating to ministers from the pandemic, said he has “no objection in principle to disclosing material to the inquiry”.
Timeline of the key events in the Boris Johnson WhatsApp row
- 28 April – Baroness Hallett issued a section 21 notice demanding the Cabinet Office produce the documents in unredacted form.
- 15 May – The Cabinet Office objected to the terms of the notice, arguing the Inquiry has “no power to use its compulsory powers to demand material that is unambiguously irrelevant to its work”.
- 22 May – The Cabinet Office was informed of Baroness Hallett’s ruling in response to its objection. The chair rejected the Cabinet Office’s claims and said it has “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation I am undertaking.”
- 24 May – Mr Johnson writes to the Inquiry requesting the chair delays publication of her ruling on the section 21 notice and states “I have always sought to comply with all disclosure requests form the Inquiry.”
- 26 May – The Inquiry receives correspondence from the Cabinet Office’s legal department requesting an extension until 5 June, and revealing it is not in possession of Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or notebooks.
- 30 May – Baroness Hallett extends the deadline for the evidence to be submitted until 4pm on Thursday 1 June.
- 1 June – Deadline for Cabinet Office to hand over missing WhatsApp messages to the Inquiry passes and ministers launch legal action.
Mr Johnson writes to the Inquiry stating he is “more than happy” to hand over the requested material directly, but it emerges WhatsApp messages from the height of the pandemic cannot be found as the former prime minister was told by the security services not to turn on his personal phone after his number was publicised online.
What is the Covid-19 Inquiry schedule?
The Inquiry is examining the pandemic, its impact and the UK’s response in different investigations called modules.
Despite the dispute between the Inquiry chair and the Cabinet Office, the Covid Inquiry is set to continue without delay.
A letter from the Cabinet Office’s solicitor, Parm Sahota, says: “We look forward to the commencement of the Module 1 hearings which begin on Tuesday 13 June and at which Cabinet Office witnesses are ready to give evidence.”
The first three modules will look into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and resilience, core political and administrative decision making in the UK and devolved administrations, and the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems.
This initial stage of Baroness Hallett’s probe is expected to span until autumn 2024.
On Tuesday, a further three modules were announced that will examine vaccines, therapeutics and anti-viral treatment across the UK, the Government procurement process and social care.
Baroness Hallett aims to conclude public hearings by summer 2026.