Covid inquiry: Government will probably lose legal case, says minister


The government is likely to lose its legal case against the Covid inquiry, a government minister has said.

The Cabinet Office has said it will seek a judicial review of the inquiry’s demand that it submit Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages unredacted.

Science minister George Freeman told the BBC’s Question Time he had “very little doubt” a court would find the documents should be handed over.

But, he added, it was “worth testing” if officials had a right to privacy.

On Thursday, the government missed a 16:00 BST deadline to submit messages sent between Mr Johnson and 40 other ministers and officials during the pandemic.

The Cabinet Office – which supports the prime minister in running the government – has argued many of the messages are not relevant, and that to hand them over would compromise ministers’ privacy and hamper future decision-making.

Baroness Hallett, the retired judge and crossbench peer who is chairing the inquiry, has said it is up to her to decide what material is relevant.

Mr Johnson has said he has given his messages to the Cabinet Office and would be “more than happy” for them to be passed to the inquiry unredacted.

But the former prime minister has not handed over any messages from before April 2021 – more than a year into the pandemic – because his phone was involved in a security breach and has not been turned on since, his spokesman said.

In April 2021, it emerged that Mr Johnson’s personal mobile phone number had been freely available on the internet for 15 years, leading to concerns over the device’s security.

Mr Johnson has written to the Cabinet Office to ask whether technical support can be given so the content can be retrieved without compromising security, his spokesman added.

Documents released by the Cabinet Office also list questions put to Mr Johnson by the inquiry earlier this year, including: “In or around autumn 2020, did you state that you would rather ‘let the bodies pile high’ than order another lockdown, or words to that effect? If so, please set out the circumstances in which you made these comments.”

Mr Johnson has previously denied making the comments.

The inquiry also asked the former prime minister if he received advice to sack Matt Hancock as health secretary between January and July 2020.


Asked about the government’s legal case against the Covid inquiry, Mr Freeman told the BBC he thought the “courts will probably take the view” that Baroness Hallett is entitled to decide “what evidence she deems relevant”.

But he added that “people’s privacy is really important” and that the question of how private correspondence should be handled was a “point worth testing”.

“I would like to see a situation where the inquiry says: ‘Listen, we will wholly respect the privacy of anything that’s not related to Covid. We will redact it’,” he said.

The challenge is thought to be the first time a government has taken legal action against its own public inquiry.

Dame Deirdre Hine, who led the review into the 2009 swine flu outbreak, said the government taking legal action would be “most ill-advised”.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think this is unwise on the part of the government and they have no right to withhold the documents.”

Lord Gavin Barwell, who worked as chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May, said he thought the government was making a “bad mistake” by not handing over the full WhatsApp messages.

“We’re having the enquiry to give people confidence we’re getting to the truth. And if the government is controlling what the inquiry can and can’t see, then people are not going to get confidence in the outcome,” he told Today.

Relatives of the bereaved have expressed frustration at the government’s stance

The saga comes just two weeks before the inquiry – tasked with identifying lessons from how the pandemic was handled – is due to hold its first public hearings.

Lobby Akinnola, from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, expressed exasperation at the government’s decision to bring the challenge and said he feared it was part of an attempt to render the inquiry “lame”.

“I’m frustrated, I’m angry,” he told the BBC’s The World Tonight, adding that “we’re trying to understand what went wrong so we can prevent it happening again and that… is what the government is hindering.”

Opposition parties have also urged the government to comply with the inquiry’s requests.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, described the legal challenge as a “desperate attempt to withhold evidence” that would serve “only to undermine the Covid Inquiry”, while the Liberal Democrats called it a “kick in the teeth for bereaved families who’ve already waited far too long for answers”.