Government accused of ‘cover-up’ over Covid inquiry WhatsApp row

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, has said there appear to be attempts at a “cover-up” by the government with ministers set to refuse to hand over unredacted WhatsApps to the official Covid inquiry.

As a result, the Covid inquiry and the cabinet office now look to be building to a legal battle, after the inquiry lodged a request, under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, for unredacted copies of Boris Johnson’s messages and 24 diaries from between January 2020 and February 2022.

Baroness Hallett, the inquiry’s chair, has already threatened legal action.

In a ruling last week, she said: “The entire contents of the documents that are required to be produced are of potential relevance to the lines of investigation that I am pursuing.”

She maintains the government has until 4pm today to produce the messages.

Responding to these developments, Lord Kerslake told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme: “There is some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers. But there’s also the cabinet office fighting for a principle of confidentiality.

“I have to say I think they’re misguided on this occasion. I actually think it would set a helpful precedent if Lady Hallett prevailed in this fight about the information.

“We are in a bit of a mess at the moment, we don’t really know whether WhatsApp’s been used as a decision-making tool or, indeed, as just an information-sharing device.”

He added: “We’ve got the extraordinary situation where Matt Hancock handed over a whole sheath of WhatsApp messages to a journalist without any apparent sanction under the official secrets act, surely this case for seeing the documents in one of our most important inquiries, probably since Iraq, must be much more compelling than that”.

The government’s opposition to handing over WhatsApp messages and diaries in full amid the threat of legal challenge has been backed by the former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Sir Iain accused Lady Hallett of “trying to be Agatha Christie” by turning the Covid inquiry into a “whodunnit”.

Sir Iain said: “It’s completely unnecessary chasing individuals. They are on a fishing expedition and they should stop fishing. There is enough evidence out there to know what went wrong.”

Boris Johnson has also argued that releasing his diaries in full would be a breach of national security.

The former prime minister is already understood to be furious with the cabinet office after it referred a selection of his diary entries to the police and the privileges committee of MPs.

Doorstepped by Sky News at Dulles Airport in the United States last Friday, Mr Johnson declared: “None of them constitute a breach of the rules during Covid. They weren’t during lockdown.

“They were during other periods of the restrictions. None of them constitute a breach of the rules. None of them involve socialising. It is total nonsense.”