1 of 2 | COVID-19 Inquiry chair, Baroness Heather Hallett, signaled Tuesday that she had no intention of backing down in a legal battle with the government over her subpoena for the WhatsApp messages and notebooks of the man who led the country's response to the pandemic, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. File photo by Any Rain/EPA-EFE
June 6 (UPI) -- The head of Britain's public inquiry into COVID-19 refused to back down Tuesday in a row with the government over an order to turn over the unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Cabinet Office has gone to court to get Baroness Heather Hallett's subpoena thrown out on grounds the material has no relevance to COVID-19, but as she formally opened the inquiry, the retired appeals court judge insisted it was for her to decide what evidence the investigation should be handed.
"As has been widely reported in the media, an issue has arisen between the inquiry and the Cabinet Office as to who decides what is relevant or potentially relevant," Hallett said.
"I issued a notice under Section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 making it clear that, in my view, it is for the inquiry chair to decide what is relevant or potentially relevant.
"The Cabinet Office disagrees, claiming they are not obliged to disclose what they consider to be unambiguously irrelevant material. They invited me to withdraw the Section 21 notice. I declined," she added stressing that as the government was now seeking a judicial review of her refusal, she was unable to say anything further.
The government has said it would hand over "relevant" material but alleges some of what was being sought by the inquiry was "clearly and unambiguously irrelevant" and was concerned about the privacy of third parties whose personal information would be seen by inquiry staff.
The government launched the unprecedented legal action against its own inquiry after a 48-hour deadline for the Cabinet Office to hand over the evidence in full came and went at 4 p.m. Thursday local time.
Hallett subpoenaed notebooks, diaries and WhatsApp messages between Johnson and ministers and officials to be turned over -- unredacted -- by May 30, two weeks before the inquiry officially opened but granted a two-day extension as the row flared.
Johnson wrote to Baroness Hallett on Friday saying he would send his WhatsApp messages directly to the inquiry but as the Cabinet Office's lawyers have named him as interested party in their suit, the inquiry is barred from accessing the messages pending the outcome of the case.