Covid inquiry: is the government attempting a cover-up?

Cabinet Office accused of ‘cowardly’ bid to obstruct the official investigation

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak clad in masks
Sunak ‘has given the impression of seeking to protect Johnson’, said one commentator
(Image credit: Gareth Fuller/WPA Pool/Getty Images )

The prime minister has been accused of attempting a “cover-up” as he tries to block the Covid inquiry’s request for Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks.

After the Cabinet Office launched an unprecedented High Court bid to avoid handing over the material, opposition politicians accused Rishi Sunak of a “cowardly” attempt to obstruct the inquiry.

The department said it was bringing the legal challenge “with regret”, but insisted that “important issues of principle” were at stake. It claimed that the request by the inquiry amounted to an “unwarranted intrusion” into other aspects of government work, as well as into “expectations of privacy”.

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“The public deserve answers, not another cover-up,” said Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner. But which are we most likely to get?

What did the papers say?

“I fear we are witnessing a Covid cover-up,” said Karol Sikora in The Telegraph.

“The person with cancer now incurable because of unjustified delays” and “the families forced to say their final goodbye to loved ones over a mobile phone” are among those who “deserve pandemic answers”, said the physician.

However, he fears “that we are seeing the beginnings of a great Covid cover-up, a disastrous whitewash”, because the inquiry “may not overcome the force of a pro-lockdown establishment closing ranks to protect itself”.

By seeking a judicial review, Sunak “looks as if he has something to hide”, said The Independent. The PM has “constructed an elegant political trap for himself, thereby making the very worst of a delicate situation”, it added.

The former chief prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, tweeted that “if it looks like an attempted cover-up, smells like an attempted cover-up, then guess what…”. Earlier this week, the former head of the civil service joined the chorus. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, Lord Kerslake said: “There’s some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers”, HuffPost reported.

The inquiry is not expected to conclude its public hearings until the summer of 2026, noted William Atkinson in The Spectator, with “subjects such as Covid contracts and decisions on care homes not tackled until 2025”.

“This may be good news for Johnson, Hancock, and any other ex-minister worried about having their records publicly scrutinised”, but “it is terrible news for anyone who wants to learn the truth”, he said.

“Voters are expected to go to the polls next year without having heard about the most important decisions the Conservatives made in office,” he added. “How does that enable the public to hold those responsible to account?”

The government argues that handing over some of the Johnson material without redactions “could set a problematic precedent – damaging its ability to have private policy discussions without fear of disclosure”, explained the Institute for Government.

However, countered the think tank, “the more dangerous precedent is that document-holders and potential witnesses get to decide what is relevant to an inquiry, rather than the independent inquiry chair”.

What next?

A legal decision on the contested material is expected soon. The judicial review should be “pretty quick” with a hearing in “a small number of weeks” – even as soon as next week, Jonathan Jones, a former permanent secretary of the government legal department, told Politico.

A ruling would then be expected to be handed down within “weeks or days” but the news site noted that either side “could yet head to the Court of Appeal if the battle over redactions doesn’t go their way”.

The government is likely to lose the case, said science minister George Freeman. But, speaking on the BBC’s “Question Time”, he added that “people’s privacy is really important” and the question of how private correspondence should be handled was a “point worth testing”.

Writing in The New Statesman, former Tory MP David Gauke wondered whether Sunak’s authority may be damaged by his decision to side with Johnson. “When he first became Prime Minister”, Sunak “promised to uphold the values of integrity, professionalism and accountability”, wrote Gauke. But “he has given the impression of seeking to protect Johnson and appease his supporters, looked evasive” and will “sooner or later lose this battle”.

Sunak can “try to keep Johnson onside or he can demonstrate his commitment to integrity, professionalism and accountability”, said Gauke. “He cannot do both.”

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