The Cabinet Office is taking the UK Covid Inquiry to court on “principle” because its requests for Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages would disclose personal details relating to family and illness, lawyers have said.
Sir James Eadie KC, representing the Cabinet Office, told the High Court on Friday that the inquiry’s requests for material were “extraordinarily broad” and should be blocked.
Baroness Heather Hallett, who is chairing the public inquiry, has demanded unredacted WhatsApps between Mr Johnson, his former adviser Henry Cook and 40 named individuals involved in the Government response to the pandemic.
It includes group chats between senior ministers that were used to communicate about the response to Covid between January 2020 and February 2022.
Baroness Hallet has also demanded Mr Johnson’s personal diaries and 24 notebooks from the same period, claiming it is up for her to decide what is relevant to the inquiry, not the former prime minister.
But lawyers for the Government have accused the inquiry chair of overreach, arguing that her requests would force the Cabinet Office to hand over material “entirely irrelevant to the inquiry”.
It is attempting to block the release of Mr Johnson’s WhatsApps and private notebooks to Lady Hallett, even though the former prime minister has already handed both over to the Cabinet Office.
So far, Mr Johnson has only surrendered WhatsApp messages since spring 2021 insisting that security advisers had told him to permanently turn off a previous phone when its security became compromised.
Sir James told the High Court that Lady Hallett had demanded material that included “references to personal and family information, including illness and disciplinary matters’”.
He said there could be “no justification” for forcing Mr Johnson to hand over tens of thousands of personal WhatsApp messages “on the off chance that they might contain something of that ilk”, adding: “The logic is massively broad and potentially very disturbing.”
Baroness Hallett, who launched the public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic earlier this month, is understood to be “very confident” of victory in the legal challenge.
Lawyers for the inquiry insisted on Friday that she must “cast the net wide” when carrying out her investigation. In written arguments before the court, counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC said the chairwoman’s understanding of her powers was “correct”, while the Cabinet Office’s was “flawed and unworkable” and “undermines” her ability to conduct the investigation.
“The chair must have freedom to pursue lines of inquiry in order that she can properly discharge her investigative function,” he said.
“Without sight of such documents, she may not know which lines of inquiry should be pursued … It effectively leaves the holder of the documents, and not the chair, patrolling the boundary of what is relevant to the chair’s investigation.
The barrister also suggested that the broad scope of the material requested would allow Baroness Hallett to judge whether “a minister inadequately dealt with a Covid-19-related issue because they were focused, perhaps inappropriately, on other issues”.
Mr Keith told the court that the outcome of the case would have a “wide impact” on the level of disclosure for current and future public inquiries.
Rishi Sunak has insisted the Government is “confident in our position” and insisted it has shown “transparency and candour” throughout the process.
The hearing, before Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Garnham, is due to conclude on Monday.