The Cabinet Office yesterday confirmed it was launching a legal challenge in a bid to block the Covid inquiry’s request for Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and notebooks.
The department said it was bringing a judicial review challenge “with regret”, but added that there were “important issues of principle at stake”.
The decision, which has led to accusations from critics of time wasting and a “cover up”, was defended last night on BBC’s Question Time programme by science minister George Freeman.
The minister told the programme:“I don’t think it is a cynical waste of time at all. The privacy point is relevant. I think it’ll clear up and give people confidence, even if all this achieves is to make very clear that the inquiry will treat with absolute confidentiality anything private and we can get on with it”.
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He argued that the judicial review will “clear up” the way in which evidence will be treated amid privacy concerns.
However, he also suggested the government will “probably” lose its legal challenge against the official Covid inquiry, adding that he believed it was “quite likely that the courts will rule that Baroness Hallett [the Covid inquiry chairwoman] will decide what evidence” she wants and is entitled to see.
He said: “In the end this is a judicial decision, it’ll be taken by the courts and I happen to think the courts will probably take the view that Baroness Hallett who is running the inquiry is perfectly entitled and empowered to decide what evidence she wants.”
Mr Johnson, in his own letter to the inquiry yesterday, said he was “more than happy” to hand over the requested material.
It comes as a former justice secretary called the government’s decision to launch a legal challenge against the Covid inquiry a “fool’s errand”.
Sir Robert Buckland, who served as lord chancellor from 2019 to 2021, suggested the government was “wasting time”.
He told LBC Radio this morning: “We are now in year one or two of an inquiry that is going to take ages. We are potentially going to lose a bit more time to a judicial review”.
He added: “Instead of having a turf war, I think everybody needs to agree a position and for independent lawyers to assess what is relevant or not in the name of former judge Heather Hallett and to get on with this, bearing in mind the fact that time is being lost on this issue.”
With the Covid inquiry dominating the headlines, YouGov has surveyed Britons to understand how much they trust the process.
The polling reveals that less than a quarter of Britons have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the inquiry.
It suggested nearly two thirds of Britons have “not very much confidence” or “no confidence at all”.