Thu | Jun 13, 2024

UK gov't fights demand to hand over Boris Johnson’s messages to COVID-19 inquiry

Published:Tuesday | May 30, 2023 | 9:30 PM
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves his house in London, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Johnson, who was fined for breaking his own government's pandemic lockdown rules, has been reported to police again over more potential breaches. The Times of London said Tuesday, May 23, 2023, that Johnson was reported by civil servants over alleged visits to Chequers, the prime minister's official country retreat, as well as potential breaches in the leader's Downing Street residence. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, File)

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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