LONDON (AP) — As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has launched an independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the inquiry wants to see, in full, what Johnson wrote to other UK officials as the outbreak raged – but the government is fighting a demand to hand over the equipment.
Inquiry chair Heather Hallett, a retired judge, called on the government to produce full copies of Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and notebooks, after initially receiving redacted versions.
Government officials said they only cut documents that were “unambiguously unrelated to the investigation,” but Hallett wants to be the judge. She said “all of the contents of the specified documents are potentially relevant to the lines of inquiry pursued by the investigation.”
Hallett – who has the power to summon evidence and examine witnesses under oath – set a deadline of 4pm (1500 GMT) on 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, saying it did not have Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or notebooks. Hallett rejected a request to move the deadline to Monday, but agreed to extend it by 48 hours, until Thursday.
The inquiry said that if the WhatsApp messages and notebooks cannot be produced, the government must provide witness statements from senior officials indicating efforts to find them.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who took office after the departure of Johnson in September – who will be replaced for a few weeks by Liz Truss – said the government had already handed over tens of thousands of documents to the inquiry and “considered the next steps”. carefully.” The government is concerned about the precedent that releasing Johnson’s full, unredacted conversations could set.
Bob Kerslake, a former civil service chief, said the government was likely resisting disclosure “to avoid embarrassment for ministers” – an approach he called “misguided”.
The UK has recorded more than 200,000 deaths among people with COVID-19, one of the highest tolls in Europe, and the decisions of Johnson’s government have been endlessly debated. Johnson agreed in late 2021 to lead an investigation after pressure from bereaved families.
Hallett’s inquiry is to investigate the UK’s pandemic preparedness, how the government responded and whether ‘the level of loss was inevitable or things could have been done better’ . Public hearings are scheduled to begin in June and Johnson is among the senior officials scheduled to testify.
The investigation has already got Johnson into hot water. Johnson was one of dozens fined last year for breaking his own government’s pandemic lockdown rules in the so-called partygate scandal. Earlier this month, government-appointed lawyers helping Johnson prepare his submissions and testimony uncovered evidence of other potential violations of COVID-19 restrictions.
The new evidence relates to alleged visits to Checkers, the Prime Minister’s official retreat to the countryside, as well as potential breaches at the leader’s residence in Downing Street.
Officials reported the information to police, who said they were evaluating the new evidence. Johnson denies any wrongdoing.