The UK government said on Thursday it will mount a legal challenge over the release of documents to a public inquiry probing its handling of the Covid pandemic.
The Cabinet Office announced that it was seeking a judicial review of the order by inquiry chair judge Heather Hallett to hand over all correspondence.
In particular, it is opposed to the release of unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and personal notebooks from Boris Johnson, who was prime minister at the time.
Johnson came in for criticism early in the health emergency for failing to take the threat seriously enough, then as the death toll spiralled and new variants emerged.
Ministers have also come under fire for the awarding of contracts for protective equipment to friends and associates, bypassing government tendering guidelines.
The Cabinet Office, which works across the executive coordinating government activity, had until 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) to send in the material or face legal action.
But it said in a letter to Hallett: “The Cabinet Office has today sought leave to bring a judicial review.
“We do so with regret and with an assurance that we will continue to cooperate fully with the inquiry before, during and after the jurisdictional issue in question is determined by the courts.”
The letter stated that if a review is granted, it would look at whether the inquiry “has the power to compel production of documents and messages which are unambiguously irrelevant to the inquiry’s work, including personal communications and matters unconnected to the government’s handling of Covid”.
“The request for unambiguously irrelevant material goes beyond the powers of the inquiry,” it asserted, adding that to do so would be an “unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government” as well as serving and former ministers, and government employees.
Hallett maintains that it is her job to decide what is relevant to the inquiry. The main opposition Labour party accused the government of an attempted cover-up.
Johnson, who set up the probe, which has its first full hearing later this month, said Thursday he was ready to provide the requested material directly.
“I see no reason why the inquiry should not be able to satisfy itself about the contents of my own Whatsapps and notebooks,” Johnson said in a separate letter to Hallett.
“If you wish to have this material forthwith, please let me know where and how you wish me to send it to you,” he added.
He was outraged last week when it emerged that the Cabinet Office had handed over material to two police forces about potential breaches of pandemic regulations.
He was previously fined along with dozens of aides and the current prime minister Rishi Sunak for attending boozy gatherings in Downing Street, breaking the laws he set the country.