UK asks court to curb powers of COVID inquiry to see WhatsApp messages

FILE PHOTO: The WhatsApp messaging application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government on Friday asked London's High Court to stop a public inquiry into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing it to hand over some internal WhatsApp messages.

Britain's Cabinet Office refused to provide WhatsApp messages concerning the government's handling of the pandemic and other political issues earlier this month, saying some of the material sought was "unambiguously irrelevant".

The inquiry was ordered by the government itself in 2021 and is chaired by a former senior judge, Heather Hallett, who asked the government to provide two years' worth of WhatsApp messages between senior figures, including former prime minister Boris Johnson and 40 different individuals.

However, the Cabinet Office has brought a legal challenge over the inquiry's demands, which its lawyer James Eadie told the court was brought "with some considerable reluctance".

He argued in court filings that documents relevant to the inquiry "simply cannot cover all government business and all the policy areas that were live over the two-year period".

Eadie added the WhatsApp messages contained references to personal and family information and "comments of a personal nature" about identifiable government figures.

But lawyers representing Hallett said the limits the Cabinet Office sought to place on public inquiries' powers to compel the production of documents was "flawed and unworkable".

Hugo Keith said in court filings that the relevance of material is kept under review, saying a witness statement provided by Johnson earlier this month led to the relevance of previously-provided WhatsApp messages being reassessed.

"Material that had been redacted by the Cabinet Office as 'unambiguously irrelevant' is now assessed as relevant in light of Mr Johnson's statement," Keith said.

Johnson is an interested party to the Cabinet Office's case and his lawyers argue the government's legal challenge should be dismissed.

"Mr Johnson has no objection to the inquiry inspecting the materials unredacted, subject to appropriate security and confidentiality arrangements," they said in court filings.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin, Editing by Paul Sandle)

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