By Tony O’ Reilly-
The British government is to launch a legal challenge over the Covid inquiry’s demand for WhatsApp messages and documents from Boris Johnson.
Officials missed a 4pm deadline deadline to disclose messages between Boris Johnson and his advisers during the pandemic, as well as his diaries and notebooks.
Mr Johnson only yesterday expressed a willingness to hand over unredacted material if asked, making the challenge from the government a bit odd, and in fact said he had sent all the whatsapp messages.
Johnson went as far as asking the Cabinet Office to submit the material to the inquiry in full, without redactions, adding he would do so himself “if asked”.
The inquiry had requested access to WhatsApp messages from Mr Johnson’s phone, covering the period 1 January, 2020 to 24 February, 2022.
However, the material Mr Johnson submitted did not include messages sent before May 2021, due to circumstances that saw him forced to change phones after a security breach, the director of the Cabinet Office said in a statement to the inquiry.
Mr Johnson changed his mobile phone in 2021 after it emerged his number had been freely available on the internet for the past 15 years.
In a letter to Baroness Hallett, the chair of the Covid inquiry, Mr Johnson said: “If you wish to have this material forthwith, please let me know where and how you wish me to send it to you.”
However, critics say the demand for all the whassap messages is a headache for both Johnson and the tory party.
The sudden decision to challenge the call for evidence on the day of the deadline came out of the blue.
The main reason being presented is that the mobile phone used by Mr Johnson during a critical period in the pandemic was reportedly involved in a security breach, and has not been turned on since, according to a spokesman for Johnson.
The government has refused to disclose some of the contents to a phone the former prime minister once owned, arguing that the contents are not relevant to the inquiry.
The Cabinet Office, which is taking the lead for the government has said it will apply for a judicial review to determine whether the inquiry had overstepped its legal powers to demand evidence.
Elkan Abrahamson, the lawyer representing the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said: “The Cabinet Office is showing utter disregard for the inquiry in maintaining their belief that they are the higher power and arbiter of what is relevant material and what is not.
“It raises questions about the integrity of the inquiry and how open and transparent it will be if the chair is unable to see all of the material.”
Opposition parties have also slammed prime minister, Rishi Sunak’s government, accusing him of interfering with the Covid inquiry and urged him to comply with its requests.
Stating its grounds for legal action, the Cabinet Office said ministers and officials “should not be required to provide material that is irrelevant to the inquiry’s work”.
It said “irrelevant material” requested by the inquiry included “references to personal and family information, including illness and disciplinary matters”, and “comments of a personal nature about identified or identifiable individuals which are unrelated to Covid-19”.
Transparency and Accountability
PR analyst , Abbi Hoxleigh said : ”Access to government communication records, such as WhatsApp messages, is crucial for transparency and accountability. These messages may shed light on the decision-making processes, discussions, and exchanges of information among government officials and advisers.
”Blocking an inquiry’s request to examine such messages raises concerns about transparency and the government’s willingness to be held accountable for its actions.
The implication of their refusal could be that they are cherry picking, which may be why the inquiry wants to see the organic flow of the messages. And the cherry picking could be for the right reasons, but one might question whether whassap is the right place for politicians”.
”if its a public service conversation the government has been happening on the whassap, we might assume that information given to a confidential inquiry”
”If issues in the whatsapp messages are related to government and policy issues, it really shouldn’t matter because there shouldn’t be private matters in there. Anything in those messages would be confidential and won’t be leaked to the public anyway.
”One wouldn’t think he should have private messages on his whats app messages.
Public Trust and Confidence
Hoxleigh continued :”Public trust is essential for effective governance, particularly during times of crisis. Fighting blocking access to WhatsApp messages, the government risks eroding public trust and confidence. Transparency and openness in sharing relevant information foster trust, while secrecy or attempts to withhold information can lead to scepticism and suspicion.
Solicitor Fabian Nworah from Rockstone Law Solicitors said: ” if private messages unrelated to the inquiry are also contained in the messages, it potentially raises privacy issues which complicate the whole affair. That’s a question of law, but the government may need to qualify what make certain messages private, and what the concern is if those messages will not be made public’.
”The content of WhatsApp messages exchanged by government officials is important because it can provide valuable insights into the development of policies and strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
”Examining these messages can help the public and independent inquiries understand how decisions were made, whether scientific advice was followed, and whether political considerations influenced the response to the crisis.
Lessons for Future Preparedness
Analysing the communication records related to the government’s response to the pandemic can provide valuable lessons for future crisis management and preparedness. The ability to review these messages enables a comprehensive evaluation of decision-making processes, identifying areas for improvement, and informing strategies to enhance future responses to public health emergencies.
Balancing Privacy and Public Interest
Solicitor Nworah continued: The legal action taken by the government may be seen as an attempt to protect the privacy of individuals involved in the WhatsApp conversations. While privacy considerations are important, they must be balanced with the public interest. Determining the appropriate balance requires careful consideration of the nature of the information, the potential harm, and the overall importance of accountability and transparency in matters of public concern.