How a Covid inquiry and Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp chats have Rishi Sunak in a fix

By India Today World Desk: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has found himself in the middle of a blazing row owing to a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, with allegations of cover-up and obstruction flying.

Set up in 2021 and headed by a former judge, the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry recently asked the Conservative government to hand over former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and pandemic diaries. Rishi Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the pandemic.

Sunak’s government on Thursday said it would not hand over the internal WhatsApp messages and launched legal action against the Covid inquiry in an attempt to protect the material.

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In a letter to the inquiry, the Cabinet Office said it will seek a judicial review of the demand to release the former prime minister’s WhatsApp messages and notebooks, reported the Independent.

The letter stated that the request by the inquiry amounted to an “unwarranted intrusion” into other aspects of government work, as well as into “expectations of privacy”.

It further said that the inquiry was going beyond its remit and that the WhatsApp messages and other records it was requesting were “unambiguously irrelevant”.

In light of the Cabinet Office’s legal challenge to the Covid inquiry, Sunak was accused by opposition Labour and the Liberal Democrats of a “cover-up” and a “cowardly” attempt to obstruct the inquiry.

“These latest smoke and mirror tactics serve only to undermine the Covid inquiry. The public deserve answers,” Angela Rayner, deputy leader of Labour Party, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper MP said, “This cowardly attempt to obstruct a vital public inquiry is a kick in the teeth for bereaved families who’ve already waited far too long for answers.”

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Sunak asserted that the government was confident in its position.

“We’ve been long cooperating with the inquiry,” Sunak told reporters on the sidelines of a summit in Moldova, adding it was important to learn the lessons of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, in a statement to the inquiry, senior civil servant Ellie Nicholson revealed that the WhatsApp messages passed to the Cabinet Office by Boris Johnson are only from May 2021 onwards.

A spokesperson for Johnson, however, said he has “absolutely no objection whatsoever to providing content on the phone to the inquiry”.

Johnson, in his own letter to the inquiry on Thursday evening after the legal proceedings were initiated, said he is “more than happy” to hand over his unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks directly to the panel.

Johnson’s spokesperson added: “He has written to the Cabinet Office asking whether security and technical support can be given so that content can be retrieved without compromising security.”

WhatsApp is a favoured way for British politicians, officials and journalists to converse. The tone is often candid or casual, and potentially embarrassing. The government is worried about what Johnson’s full, unredacted conversations might uncover and how it might impact the Conservative party’s chances going into national elections next year.

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