UK Government Seeks Court Intervention to Limit COVID Inquiry’s Access to WhatsApp Messages

The British government, under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has approached London's High Court to halt a public inquiry into its management of the COVID-19 pandemic

The British government, under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has approached London’s High Court to halt a public inquiry into its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, aiming to prevent the release of certain internal WhatsApp messages.

Earlier this month, the UK Cabinet Office refused to disclose WhatsApp messages related to the government’s handling of the pandemic and other political matters, citing some of the requested material as “unambiguously irrelevant.”

The government initiated the inquiry in 2021, appointing former senior judge Heather Hallett as its chair. Hallett requested two years’ worth of WhatsApp messages exchanged among key figures, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and 40 other individuals.

However, the Cabinet Office has launched a legal challenge against the inquiry’s demands, reluctantly contesting them, as stated by its lawyer, James Eadie, during court proceedings.

Eadie argued in court documents that the materials relevant to the inquiry cannot encompass all government activities and policy areas that were in focus during the specified two-year period.

Additionally, Eadie pointed out that the WhatsApp messages contained personal and family information, as well as “comments of a personal nature” regarding identifiable government officials.

Nevertheless, lawyers representing Hallett countered the Cabinet Office’s attempt to restrict the powers of public inquiries to compel document production, deeming it flawed and unworkable.

Hugo Keith, representing Hallett, highlighted in court filings that the relevance of materials is continually reassessed. He cited a witness statement provided by Johnson earlier in the month, which prompted a reevaluation of the previously submitted WhatsApp messages in terms of their relevance.

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, as an interested party, has his legal team arguing for the dismissal of the government’s legal challenge, expressing no objection to the inquiry examining the unredacted materials under appropriate security and confidentiality arrangements, as stated in their court filings.

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