UK Government Seeks to Halt COVID-19 Inquiry’s Request for WhatsApp Messages.
The British government, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has made a request to the High Court in London to prevent a public inquiry into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic from accessing certain internal WhatsApp messages.
Earlier this month, the Cabinet Office declined to provide WhatsApp messages related to the government’s pandemic response and other political matters, citing the material’s lack of relevance.
The inquiry, initiated by the government itself in 2021 and chaired by former senior judge Heather Hallett, had requested two years’ worth of WhatsApp messages exchanged among senior officials, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and 40 other individuals.
However, the Cabinet Office has legally challenged the inquiry’s demands, with lawyer James Eadie expressing “considerable reluctance” in court. Eadie argued that the documents sought by the inquiry cannot encompass all government affairs and policy areas over the specified two-year period.
Eadie also pointed out that the WhatsApp messages contain personal and family references, as well as “comments of a personal nature” concerning identifiable government figures.
On the other side, Hallett’s legal representatives argued that the restrictions the Cabinet Office wants to impose on the inquiry’s power to compel document production are flawed and impractical.
According to lawyer Hugo Keith, the relevance of materials is continuously reviewed, and a witness statement provided by Johnson earlier this month led to a reassessment of the relevance of previously submitted WhatsApp messages.
Keith stated, “Material that had been redacted by the Cabinet Office as ‘unambiguously irrelevant’ is now assessed as relevant in light of Mr. Johnson’s statement.”
Johnson, who is directly involved in the Cabinet Office’s case, has urged the dismissal of the government’s legal challenge. His lawyers contend that he has no objection to the inquiry examining the unredacted materials, subject to appropriate security and confidentiality measures.