Government will be ‘robustly transparent where appropriate’ on Covid inquiry, minister vows

Amid an almighty row between the cabinet office, the chair of the Covid public inquiry and Boris Johnson over the release of the former PM’s pandemic-era WhatsApp messages, a cabinet minister said the government “intends to be absolutely transparent and candid”.

The Covid inquiry chair Baroness Hallett yesterday granted the cabinet office a short extension to hand over the requested messages from Mr Johnson. The department now has until 4pm on Thursday to pass on the information after the government said it did not actually have the relevant evidence in its possession.

Asked this morning if the cabinet office should hand over what is being requested, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride told Sky News that the department has already handed over tens of thousands of documents and more. He added that he is “absolutely certain and confident” that the cabinet office is adhering to its obligations to the COVID inquiry.

Mr Stride said that the government is “making sure we are absolutely, robustly transparent, where it is appropriate to be so, and I think that’s an important qualification, so that that inquiry has all the information that it is right for it to have.”

He also told Times Radio that there is a “very strong case” for not handing over “unambiguously irrelevant” material to the Covid inquiry. He said: “It seems to me at least that there is a very strong case for not just providing every single piece of information that’s ever requested even if it is entirely irrelevant to what is being considered”.

Ahead of the new Thursday 4pm deadline, Baroness Hallett has demanded that the cabinet office hand over:

  • Unredacted messages sent and received by Boris Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022;
  • Unredacted diaries for Mr Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022;
  • Copies of 24 unredacted notebooks filled in by Mr Johnson between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022;
  • Unredacted messages sent and received by adviser Henry Cook between 1 January 2020 and 24 February 2022;
  • The inquiry wants messages — even from group chats — about the government response to COVID, as well as contact with a list of certain experts, ministers, civil servants and advisers.

The shadow international trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds this morning said that the government must comply with the orders that the chair of the Covid inquiry, telling Sky News that families who lost loved ones deserve to know the truth.

Mr Thomas-Symonds added that “it’s clear” that Baroness Hallett, who is chairing the inquiry, is “unimpressed” by what the government is saying.

The cabinet office last night maintained its position that it believes the inquiry “does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation”.

It was also revealed yesterday that cabinet office officials visited Mr Johnson’s office in person “to examine notebooks within the past few weeks”.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson has said the former PM has “no objection to disclosing material to the inquiry” and the decision to “challenge the inquiry’s position on redactions is for the Cabinet Office”.

Rishi Sunak said yesterday that the government is “carefully considering next steps” — but is “confident in its position”.

Meanwhile, ministers will avoid answering questions about the deaths of care home residents during the pandemic until after an election, the covid inquiry has announced. Baroness Hallett revealed that hearings to investigate how the care sector coped during the pandemic will not begin until spring 2025. 

The deadline for a general election to be held is January 2025.