The chair of the COVID inquiry has been warned the “only logical response” if she lost the WhatsApp battle with the government would be for her to resign.
Solicitor Elkan Abrahamson, who represents the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, spoke following the government’s decision to launch a judicial review into Baroness Hallett’s bid for unredacted material to be handed over.
Mr Abrahamson stressed he was not calling on her to quit but that she would face little choice if the courts sided with the government over the documents.
“I hope and expect that the inquiry will win that battle,” he told a news conference.
“There is a concern that if they don’t win – the chair having said quite clearly that she needs to see this material in order to have a proper inquiry – if the court says to her ‘well, you can’t see it’, it seems to me the only logical response of the chair is to resign because she can’t properly do her job.
“I’m not saying she should resign. I’m saying I expect that that might be the result.”
The intervention came as the government laid out its rationale for seeking the judicial review in parliament.
Baroness Hallett, who was appointed chair in December 2021, wants the government to hand over documents, including messages sent by former prime minister Boris Johnson and his fellow ministers and advisers, as well as contemporary diary entries.
The Cabinet Office has refused the order and sought a judicial review over the matter, arguing there are “important issues of principle at stake” around privacy.
Paymaster General Jeremy Quin told MPs the challenge was a “matter of legal principle that will have an impact on this and all future governments” and not related to “one individual’s personal information”.
He said there was “no question that all internal discussions on COVID in any form requested by the inquiry will be made transparently available to it”.
But he added: “What has been redacted and so not provided in response to the notice is material which the Cabinet Office considers to be clearly and unambiguously irrelevant to that work.
“That material includes, for example, communications about purely personal matters and about other aspects of the government’s policy and work, which have nothing to do with COVID.”
Mr Quin was criticised by MPs on his own side, including the Tory chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee William Wragg, who said: “The problem with this is if government business is conducted by means of WhatsApp, public inquiries will express an interest in reading what was transacted.
“When he says that the questions over material [that] might be unambiguously irrelevant, it is for the chair surely to determine that?”
Former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland also suggested the courts would be “very reluctant to get involved in second guessing the decision-making by Baroness Hallett”.
And Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh urged the government “let everything hang out and just co-operate with the inquiry”.
“Let them have what they want and let’s get to the truth.”