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WhatsApps about ‘private lives’ of No 10 staff will be kept from Covid inquiry, says Cabinet Office

The Government is standing firm in its battle with the Covid inquiry over the release of unredacted WhatsApp messages and emails, saying to do so would invade the privacy of civil servants.

The inquiry’s chair, Baroness Hallett, has given the Cabinet Office a further 48 hours to produce in full material from a string of current and former ministers, scientific advisers and officials at the height of the pandemic.

The Government has until 4pm on Thursday to comply or face unprecedented legal action from an inquiry it set up.

But the Cabinet Office issued a statement making clear it is holding its line that content it classed as “unambiguously irrelevant” should not be handed over.

In a new approach to its legal argument, the Government says messages that are “entirely personal and relate to their private lives” should not be handed over.

Lady Hallett, in her legal notice last week demanding the unredacted information, said that personal messages were in the scope of her investigations because it would show how much time they were devoting to the pandemic response.

She said: “I may also be required to investigate the personal commitments of ministers and other decision-makers during the time in question. There is, for example, well-established public concern as to the degree of attention given to the emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020 by the then prime minister.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 inquiry. As such, the Cabinet Office alone has already provided upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements and extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.

“However, we are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation. This includes the WhatsApp messages of government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”

Leaked legal advice from one of the Government’s top lawyers suggests documents recording discussions between senior ministers should not be disclosed “as a matter of course” because doing so would undermine Cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that ministers can disagree in private but show a united front in public.

The advice, leaked to Bloomberg, also revealed that officials had graded documents requested by the inquiry using a red, green and blue traffic light system, based on how politically sensitive they are. The document dates from last year but officials told the news outlet that it still stands.

The Cabinet Office was taking its disclosure obligations to the inquiry extremely seriously, a source said.

Any individual or witness who wants to provide material to the inquiry can do so directly, the source added.

This could be an option taken by Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, who could be willing to hand over their own messages to the inquiry, i understands.

The Cabinet Office believes the inquiry cannot compel the Government to disclose “unambiguously irrelevant material” given the potential adverse impacts on the process around the formulation of government policy in future and the privacy of the individuals involved, and releasing the information would set a harmful precedent.

The judgement on what constitutes “relevant material” and what should be redacted is made by legal counsel, overseen by a KC, not the individual witnesses or Government officials.

Announcing a two-day postponement of the deadline, Lady Hallett also revealed that WhatsApp messages and 24 A4 hardback notebooks belonging to Mr Johnson written during the pandemic are not in the Cabinet Office’s possession.

These messages and notebooks are with the ex-prime minister’s legal team, who are in the process of handing them over to the inquiry, i understands.

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