All of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and notebooks that were requested by the COVID inquiry have been handed to the Cabinet Office in “full and in unredacted form”, his spokesman has said.
The spokesman said the former prime minister wanted the Cabinet Office to “urgently” disclose the material to the inquiry.
A statement from the former PM’s spokesman said: “All Boris Johnson’s material – including WhatsApps and notebooks – requested by the COVID inquiry has been handed to the Cabinet Office in full and in unredacted form.
“Mr Johnson urges the Cabinet Office to urgently disclose it to the inquiry.
“The Cabinet Office has had access to this material for several months. Mr Johnson would immediately disclose it directly to the inquiry if asked.
“While Mr Johnson understands the government’s position, and does not seek to contradict it, he is perfectly happy for the inquiry to have access to this material in whatever form it requires.
“Mr Johnson cooperated with the inquiry in full from the beginning of this process and continues to do so. Indeed, he established the inquiry. He looks forward to continuing to assist the inquiry with its important work.”
The intervention by Mr Johnson’s team will heap pressure on the Cabinet Office which has come under pressure for holding on to the documents requested by the inquiry chair, Lady Hallett.
Lady Hallett had ordered the government department to hand over the former prime minister’s messages – alongside diary entries and notes – by 4pm on Tuesday 30 May.
However, the deadline was later extended and now stands at 4pm on Thursday 1 June.
It has been confirmed to Sky News that the inquiry has not asked Mr Johnson directly for the material and is waiting for the Cabinet Office to hand over the requested documents by the official deadline tomorrow.
The Cabinet Office later released a statement on Wednesday confirming it had received the information and that officials were considering it.
Despite facing accusations of a cover-up, the Cabinet Office last night stuck by its refusal to hand over the documents, arguing that it was “firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation”.
The department said it has already provided “upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements” and that “extensive time and effort” had gone into assisting the inquiry over the last 11 months.
But it added: “However, we are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation.
Boris Johnson strikes the first blow
Boris Johnson has struck a decisive blow to the government with his decision to hand his full and unredacted WhatsApp messages and documents to the Cabinet Office.
The former prime minister has moved swiftly ahead of the deadline for handing over the material to the COVID inquiry, most likely to the embarrassment of Rishi Sunak and the government.
And opposition MPs are now likely to turn their fire on to Downing Street – who have stood by their decision to refuse to hand over all the material.
Mr Johnson has decided to strike, he has handed over his material and it is up to the government how they respond.
This is a blow struck by Mr Johnson against those who claim he is holding things up and involved in some form of cover-up.
The pressure is now on Rishi Sunak to act.
“This includes the WhatsApp messages of government employees’ which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”
If the government does not abide by the new deadline on Thursday, Lady Hallett has ordered that a statement be sent by a “senior civil servant” confirming the Cabinet Office does not have the requested information, as well as a chronology of the government’s contacts with Mr Johnson about the requests and whether the government has ever had the data.
Breaking a section 21 order could see the government face criminal proceedings, and there is also potential for a court battle over whether the information should be passed to the inquiry.
Speaking shortly before the inquiry’s announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the “government is carefully considering its position, but it is confident in the approach that it’s taking”.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have criticised Mr Sunak for hesitating over the order, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accusing the prime minister of being “slippery”.
On Tuesday Mr Streeting said Mr Sunak should “comply with the inquiry and do it today”.
“One minute the government says the messages they have are immaterial; the next minute they’re saying they don’t exist. Which is it?”
He said the prime minister’s “slipperiness” gave “the impression of someone who is not fully committed to transparency, openness, accountability”.
Asked whether he was concerned about a potential “cover-up”, Mr Streeting said: “I think the fact the prime minister looks so slippery today will be a cause of deep anxiety to people who are following the inquiry closely – not least those families who have suffered bereavement and just want some honesty and some answers.”
The independent COVID inquiry, chaired by Lady Hallet, was announced by Mr Johnson in May 2021 and will examine the government’s handling of the pandemic.
The battle between the parties centres on messages Mr Johnson sent and received, as well as his diaries and his notebooks from during the pandemic.
The row started when the inquiry issued a legal notice to the Cabinet Office last week for not handing over the full contents of Mr Johnson’s messages.
While the government believes it has no duty to disclose “unambiguously irrelevant” material, Lady Hallett disagrees -and under the Inquiries Act 2005, she has the final word.
In her response to the government, she rejected their argument about the Cabinet Office deciding what or what isn’t “unambiguously irrelevant”.
She said in her ruling that all these documents “contain information that is potentially relevant” to how decisions were made during the pandemic.