LONDON (AP) — The British government is facing a Thursday afternoon deadline to hand over a sheaf of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s personal messages to the country’s COVID-19 pandemic inquiry — or face legal action from a probe that Johnson himself set up.
The notebooks, diaries and WhatsApp messages between Johnson and other officials form key evidence that the head of the probe, retired judge Heather Hallett, wants to see.
But the government is worried about the precedent that disclosing Johnson’s full, unredacted conversations might set. It has handed over incomplete versions, saying it cut personal and private information that was not relevant to the investigation.
Hallett, however, said “the entire contents of the specified documents are of potential relevance to the lines of investigation being pursued by the inquiry.”
Hallett — who has the power to summon evidence and question witnesses under oath — set a deadline of 4 p.m. (1500 GMT) Thursday for the government to hand over the documents, covering a two-year period from early 2020.
The issue has caused tension between Johnson and the current government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, which claimed this week that it did not have the material Hallett wanted.
On Wednesday, Johnson’s office said the former prime minister had given the government all the material and urged authorities to hand it to the inquiry.
The U.K. has recorded more than 200,000 deaths among people testing positive for COVID-19, one of the highest tolls in Europe, and the decisions of Johnson’s government have been endlessly debated. Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold an inquiry after pressure from bereaved families.
Hallett’s inquiry is due to investigate the U.K.’s preparedness for a pandemic, how the government responded and whether the “level of loss was inevitable or whether things could have been done better.” Public hearings are scheduled to start June 13, and Johnson is among the senior officials due to give evidence.