Boris Johnson hands COVID-era WhatsApps to UK government amid inquiry row

FILE PHOTO: Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves his home, in London, Britain March 21, 2023. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) - Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given his pandemic-era notebooks and messages to the government and urged officials to pass them on to an independent COVID-19 inquiry, his spokesman said on Wednesday.

The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for overseeing the operation of government, is in a standoff with the inquiry over whether it should hand over material it deems to be irrelevant to the investigation.

"All Boris Johnson's material - including WhatsApps and notebooks - requested by the COVID inquiry has been handed to the Cabinet Office in full and in unredacted form," the spokesman's statement said.

"Mr Johnson urges the Cabinet Office to urgently disclose it to the inquiry."

After Britain recorded one of the world's highest number of COVID deaths, Johnson's government in 2021 ordered an inquiry into the country's preparedness as well as its public health and economic response.

With a national election expected next year, the detailed examination of decision making could be politically uncomfortable for both Johnson and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was finance minister during the pandemic.

The inquiry will cover the government's management of the pandemic, particularly at the beginning when Britain was slower than many European countries to respond.

Chaired by former judge Heather Hallett, the inquiry had given the government until Thursday afternoon to hand over Johnson's WhatsApp messages and diaries.

The Cabinet Office did not immediately respond for a request for comment. In a statement issued on Tuesday, it said:

"We are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation."

"This includes the WhatsApp messages of government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives."

Johnson, whose personal conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic has been heavily criticised and who incurred a police fine for breaking lockdown regulations, said he would cooperate with the inquiry in full.

"While Mr Johnson understands the government’s position, and does not seek to contradict it, he is perfectly happy for the inquiry to have access to this material in whatever form it requires," the spokesman said.

(Reporting by William James, Elizabeth Piper and Alistair Smout; editing by John Stonestreet)

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