The deadline for the Government to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, diaries and personal notebooks to the Covid-19 public inquiry has expired.
If the Government has failed to comply with inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s order to disclose the documents, then it could lead to a court battle and possibly a criminal offence.
But ministers could seek a judicial review of her order as the Government has argued it should not have to disclose material which is “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry.
Just 45 minutes before the 4pm deadline, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told broadcasters the Government was still considering its next steps.
The Prime Minister said the Government was “confident” in its position, but did not set out how it intended to respond to Lady Hallett’s demand for the documents to be submitted.
Speaking at a summit in Moldova, Mr Sunak said: “I think it’s really important that we learn the lessons of Covid so that we can be better prepared in the future.
“And we’re doing that in the spirit of rigour but also transparency and candour.
“We’ve co-operated, the Government’s co-operated thoroughly with the inquiry to date, handing over tens of thousands of documents, and we will continue to comply of course with the law, co-operate with the inquiry.
“We’re confident in our position but are carefully considering next steps.”
The Government had previously argued that it did not have the messages and notebooks, but Mr Johnson’s office confirmed he has handed them over to officials.
The Cabinet Office has also argued that it should withhold “unambiguously irrelevant” material, but Lady Hallett has ruled that everything should be disclosed and she will decide what is or is not necessary for her work.
Mr Johnson’s decision to publicly confirm he has handed over the material – stripping the Cabinet Office of one of its defences – and his suggestion that it should be disclosed to the inquiry has heaped pressure on his successor’s Government.
Whitehall officials are concerned about the wider precedent that will be set by handing over swathes of unredacted WhatsApp conversations, with fears that the inquiry will seek similar levels of disclosure from other senior figures including Mr Sunak himself.
Lady Hallett issued her demand for the material under Section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, and failure to comply could lead to prosecution and a potential fine or jail term for an individual found guilty of the offence.
The Government could seek a judicial review of her notice, questioning whether the demand for the documents falls within the scope of her inquiry – but legal experts have suggested the Cabinet Office would have a weak case given the wide remit set out in Lady Hallett’s terms of reference.