Boris Johnson to bypass Cabinet Office and hand over unredacted messages directly to COVID inquiry

Boris Johnson has sent "all unredacted WhatsApps" directly to the COVID inquiry ahead of a legal battle between the probe and the government over access to the messages.

The former prime minister said he would "like to do the same" with texts that are on an old mobile phone he stopped using due to security concerns in May 2021 - more than a year after the pandemic began.

The move means Mr Johnson is bypassing the Cabinet Office, which has launched a legal challenge against the request from the inquiry to hand over the material in unredacted form.

Politics Live: Johnson hands 'all material available to him' to COVID inquiry

The Cabinet Office said there are "important principles at stake" - such as the issue of privacy.

But in a letter to the chair of the COVID inquiry, Baroness Hallett, Mr Johnson said: "While I understand the government's position, 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."

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Govt seeks judicial review over WhatsApp messages
Johnson hands COVID material to Cabinet Office in 'full and in unredacted form'

Mr Johnson said he was handing over "all unredacted WhatsApps I provided to the Cabinet Office" and said he has asked it to hand over his notebooks, which he no longer has access to.

He said he would "like to do the same with any material that may be on an old phone, which I have previously been told I can no longer access safely".

He said that advice should be "test[ed]", and he has asked the government for its help to turn on the device securely to hand over the material.

Rishi Sunak has been facing accusations of a cover-up over the refusal to hand over all of Mr Johnson's unredacted material to the inquiry, which is examining the UK's response to the pandemic.

Mr Johnson, who was prime minister during the crisis, had already made clear he was happy to adhere to Baroness Hallett's request and earlier this week gave all the material she had asked for to the Cabinet Office.

But ahead of a deadline to hand it over at 4pm on Thursday, the government stood by its argument that the documents being sought are "unambiguously irrelevant" and cover matters "unconnected to the government's handling of COVID".

Ministers are now gearing up for a high-profile legal battle after taking the unusual step of bringing a judicial review of Baroness Hallett's order to release the documents.

Breaking a section 21 order - made by the inquiry to obtain the messages - could see the government face criminal proceedings.

Government making 'bad mistake'

The Cabinet Office has said it is "fully committed" to its obligations to the inquiry, but 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".

But the decision drew outrage from bereaved families and opposition MPs, while science minister George Freeman predicted that the legal challenge was likely to fail.

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the prime minister of "a desperate attempt to withhold evidence" and said the public "deserve answers, not another cover-up".

And the Liberal Democrats have announced that they will table a humble address motion - a piece of parliamentary procedure used by opposition parties to force the government's hand - in the Commons next week calling for "all material" requested by the national virus probe to be released.