UK gov't fights demand to hand over Boris Johnson’s messages to COVID-19 inquiry
LONDON (AP) — As Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson established an independent public inquiry into his government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the inquiry wants to see, in full, what Johnson wrote to other United Kingdom officials as the outbreak raged — but the government is fighting a demand to hand over the material.
Inquiry chairwoman Heather Hallett, a retired judge, has asked the Conservative government, now led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, to produce full copies of Johnson's WhatsApp messages and notebooks, after initially being given redacted versions.
Government officials said they only cut out material that was “unambiguously irrelevant” to the investigation, but Hallett wants to be the judge of that.
She said, “the entire contents of the specified documents are of potential relevance to the lines of investigation being pursued by the inquiry.”
Hallett — who has the power to summon evidence and question witnesses under oath — set a deadline of 4 p.m. (1500 GMT) Tuesday for the government to hand over the documents, covering a two-year period from early 2020.
But hours before the deadline, the government asked for more time, claiming it didn't have Johnson's WhatsApp messages or notebooks. Hallett denied a request to move the deadline to Monday but agreed to extend it by 48 hours, until Thursday.
The inquiry said if the WhatsApp messages and notebooks can't be produced, the government must provide witness statements from senior officials setting out what efforts have been made to find them.
Sunak, who took office after Johnson left office in September – to be succeeded, for a few weeks, by Liz Truss — said the government had already handed over tens of thousands of documents to the inquiry and was “considering next steps carefully.” The government is worried about the precedent that disclosing Johnson's full, unredacted conversations might set.
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