Sunak denies fear of embarrassment behind bid to stop Covid inquiry seeing texts

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media during his visit to Washington DC (Niall Carson/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media during his visit to Washington DC (Niall Carson/PA)

Rishi Sunak has denied the Government is resisting the release of Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages to the Covid inquiry because he fears embarrassment.

The Prime Minister has been accused of a cover-up after the Cabinet Office announced a High Court challenge of inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s request for the wholesale handover of his predecessor’s documents from the pandemic.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner earlier said the Government was “obstructing the Covid inquiry” by launching the judicial review.

But Mr Sunak insisted it was “not at all” the case the move was designed to hide anything.

Speaking to broadcasters during a visit to Washington DC, he said he was “spending a lot” of time co-operating with the inquiry.

Asked whether he was worried about something in the messages causing him embarrassment, the Prime Minister said: “No, not at all.

“I as well am co-operating and providing information to the inquiry. It’s actually taking a lot of my own time, but that’s right that I do that.

“But obviously there’s a legal proceeding ongoing on one particular thing at the moment, which I can’t comment on.

“But more broadly, the work that the inquiry is doing is important and necessary, and those involved should co-operate in a spirit of candour and transparency. That’s what I’m doing and that’s what the Government’s doing.”

Mr Sunak said the work of the inquiry was “important and necessary”, but stopped short of expressing full confidence in it and its chairwoman.

Asked if he had full confidence in Lady Hallett, he replied: “I think the Covid inquiry is doing important and necessary work.”

The Cabinet Office says some of the information requested by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry does not relate to the Government’s handling of coronavirus and is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

Earlier on Wednesday, ministers were accused of spending taxpayers’ money on “loophole lawyers” in an attempt to block the inquiry from being handed Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp correspondence and notebooks.

In a feisty exchange between Ms Rayner and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden in the Commons, Sir Keir Starmer’s deputy said: “They set up the inquiry to get to the truth, then blocked that inquiry from getting the information that it asked for, and now they’re taking it to court.

“Does he think working people will thank him for spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of their money on loophole lawyers, just so the Government can obstruct the Covid inquiry?”

Ms Rayner also raised the Conservative Party 2019 manifesto pledge to ensure the judicial review process is “not abused” or used to “create needless delays”.

“The Tory manifesto promised to end the abuse of the judicial review – how’s it going?” she asked.

Prime Minister’s Questions
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden standing in for Rishi Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

Mr Dowden, who was standing in for Mr Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions due to the Prime Minister being in the US, said all Government Covid-related discussions would be handed to the inquiry.

The senior minister said: “We will provide the inquiry with each and every document related to Covid, including all internal discussions in any form as requested, while crucially protecting what is wholly and unambiguously irrelevant.

“Because essentially (Lady Hallett) is calling for years worth of documents and messages between named individuals to be in scope and that could cover anything from civil servants’ medical conditions to intimate details about their families.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Covid-19 Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett has requested the handover of Boris Johnson’s unredacted notes and correspondence (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

The decision to challenge the inquiry in the High Court is seen as highly unusual and one minister has raised doubts that the Government will win the contest, which could be heard before the end of the month.

At a preliminary inquiry hearing on Tuesday, Lady Hallett questioned why the Cabinet Office would want to redact information that Mr Johnson has confirmed he is happy to submit.

The retired senior judge has refused to back down from her request for Mr Johnson’s messages, saying it is for her to rule what is relevant to the investigation.

Lady Hallett has given the Cabinet Office until the end of the week to clarify whether it would seek to redact information in Mr Johnson’s notebooks, his diaries and the WhatsApp messages on his locked mobile, containing messages dating from before May 2021, if they were obtainable before the judicial review is heard on or shortly after June 30.

The first public evidence session of the inquiry is due to start next week, with witnesses being called to give testimony from Tuesday about Module 1 of the investigation, which relates to the UK’s pandemic preparedness.