With only a few minutes left before the deadline to turn over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp communications, diaries, and notebooks to the Covid-19 inquiry, Rishi Sunak stated the Government was still “carefully considering next steps.”
The Government is “confident” in its position, the Prime Minister said, but he did not specify how the Government would respond to the request for the documents from inquiry chair Baroness Hallett.
She has given the Cabinet Office until 4 p.m. to comply with her request for the needed information or risk criminal prosecution.
Speaking at a summit in Moldova, Mr Sunak said: “I think it’s really important that we learn the lessons of Covid so that we can be better prepared in the future.
“And we’re doing that in the spirit of rigour but also transparency and candour.
“We’ve co-operated, the Government’s co-operated thoroughly with the inquiry to date, handing over tens of thousands of documents, and we will continue to comply of course with the law, co-operate with the inquiry.
“We’re confident in our position but are carefully considering next steps.”
The messages and notebooks were earlier claimed by the Government to be missing, but Mr. Johnson’s office has acknowledged that he has turned them over to officials.
The Cabinet Office has additionally claimed that it should withhold “unambiguously irrelevant” information, but Lady Hallett has decided that everything should be released and that she will determine what is or is not important for her task.
Pressure has been put on his successor’s Government as a result of Mr. Johnson’s decision to publicly announce that he has turned over the evidence, robbing the Cabinet Office of one of its defenses, and his request that it be released to the inquiry.
Whitehall insiders worry that providing large portions of unredacted WhatsApp chats may set a precedent for the inquiry to want comparable levels of disclosure from other senior persons, including Mr. Sunak himself.
Under Section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, Lady Hallett made her request for the information, and anyone who disobeyed risked being charged with an offense, receiving a fine, or serving time in jail.
The Government might ask a judge to review Lady Hallett’s notice in order to determine if the request for the records is within the purview of her investigation, but legal experts have said the Cabinet Office would have a weak case given the broad reach of Lady Hallett’s mandate.
The deadline, which had previously been extended by 48 hours, loomed on Thursday as desperate attempts to reach an agreement continued.