After repeated calls to set up an inquiry into its response to Covid the government eventually appointed a judge called Baroness Heather Hallett to lead one. Why is it now taking its own inquiry to court?
It’s been more than two years since Boris Johnson announced a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic, and this week it will hold its first public evidence sessions – with former prime minister David Cameron and chancellor Jeremy Hunt among the witnesses.
But before it’s even heard any evidence, the Covid Inquiry is facing a legal challenge over what the government is willing to reveal.
The inquiry’s independent chair, Baroness Heather Hallett, is in charge of making procedural decisions, hearing evidence, and making findings and recommendations for the government’s handling of future pandemics. In theory, she also has the legal power to request unredacted evidence from the government to aid her investigation.
After months of back-and-forth, however, the Cabinet Office has refused Baronnes Hallet’s request for all of Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApps and diaries over a two year period. They argue that much of that material will be “unambiguously irrelevant”, some of it personal and private.
Earlier this month, it looked like Baroness Hallett might have to take legal action to get the government to release it – until Boris Johnson himself handed over all of the material to the Cabinet Office in full.
The government then doubled down, launching a judicial review against its own inquiry. It’s an unprecedented legal challenge, and most experts agree that the government is unlikely to win. So why move forward with the court case?
There’s concern in government that handing over everything the inquiry asks for means ministers feel less able to have difficult discussions if they think those conversations might be published later.
But this is also a story about a government run via WhatsApp – a platform where the personal and the professional often mix. Only recently the former health secretary Matt Hancock handed over a whole load of his personal WhatsApps to a journalist, and the government may well want to avoid more embarrassing revelations.
Ultimately though, evidence relating to some of the most controversial parts of the government’s handling of Covid – such as vaccine procurement and care home policies – won’t take place until after the next election, and the inquiry’s full report won’t be released until at least 2026. Any legal wranglings could delay things further.