Transparency row between Government and Covid inquiry widens

The argument over transparency between the UK Covid-19 Inquiry and the Government has widened after the chairwoman heard that WhatsApp submissions from senior aides had been redacted.

Hugo Keith KC said the Cabinet Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) had both submitted correspondence but had removed elements beforehand.

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) had made a “much fuller disclosure”, he said.

Former prime minister Liz Truss
Witness statements have been requested from a range of political figures, including former prime minister Liz Truss (Alistair Grant/PA)

It follows a decision by ministers to start High Court action over chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett’s request for Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and notebooks to be handed over.

Mr Keith said witness statements had been requested from a wide range of political figures, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, along with former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, former health secretary Matt Hancock and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove.

Leaders of the devolved administrations have also been issued with requests, including former Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Speaking during a preliminary inquiry hearing on Tuesday, Mr Keith told Lady Hallett: “We have received WhatsApp materials from Mr Johnson and two other individuals.

“And all that material has had redactions applied to some of the content.

“The FCDO has supplied the inquiry with potentially relevant WhatsApps from two of its special advisers, many with extensive redactions made on the basis of relevance.

“May we make clear that we expect them to provide unredacted WhatsApp material without delay if, of course, the judicial review claim is dismissed?

Former health secretary Matt Hancock
The hearing was told former health secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages had been supplied without any redaction (Steve Parsons/PA)

“It may be worth pointing out that the Department for Health and Social Care by contrast has to date provided much fuller disclosure, including Mr Hancock’s WhatsApp messages without any redaction at all for relevance being applied to that material.

“And so we would of course invite the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office to pay close regard to the position adopted by the DHSC.”

Mr Keith called on the Cabinet Office to “remedy immediately all overdue disclosures” of potentially relevant material from WhatsApp, including from group and one-to-one conservations.

Mr Keith also said there had been a delay in gaining access to a shared Government area stored on Google Spaces.

The room where the public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic will take place
Mr Keith said the Cabinet Office had dropped its initial argument to withhold some information on the grounds it could damage the principle of collective ministerial responsibility (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

He said Google Spaces had been a “forum for key individuals to communicate during the response to the pandemic” and that it was agreed with the Cabinet Office that the area could hold relevant evidence to the inquiry.

But he said requests for access had seen “deadlines passed unanswered” before an update from the Cabinet Office was received, containing a schedule of what was stored on the areas and who had access.

He added: “While it is regrettable that so much time has elapsed before reaching this point, we are nevertheless grateful for that schedule.”

The inquiry has asked for the Google Spaces material to be made available without redactions.

“For obvious reasons, we maintain that … the Google Spaces material must be provided to the inquiry without redactions, without a relevancy review being undertaken by the Cabinet Office,” Mr Keith added.

Later in the proceedings, Mr Keith said the Cabinet Office had dropped its initial argument to withhold some information on the grounds that it could damage the principle of collective ministerial responsibility.