(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak risks being dragged back into the emotionally fraught row over the UK’s response to Covid-19, as his government tries to prevent the release of ministers’ WhatsApp messages to a public inquiry.
Sunak’s office must decide by Thursday whether to bow to the inquiry’s demands, though there is no sign it will do so. An official said the government stands by legal advice it received last year not to share information by default and to block the release of “politically sensitive” material about the pandemic.
Read More: UK Government Seeks to Block Disclosures to the Covid Inquiry
The written advice from James Eadie, seen by Bloomberg, said documents recording discussions between senior ministers during the pandemic should not be disclosed “as a matter of course,” because doing so would undermine the principle of collective responsibility — the convention in British politics that ministers can voice dissenting opinions and expect them to remain private.
The Cabinet Office declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg. But an official said the advice still stands, insisting it would set a dangerous precedent to suspend the principle of collective responsibility and hand over details of meetings where ministers expressed their private views.
For days, the spat between the government and the official Covid inquiry was dominated by revelations former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who like Sunak was fined for breaking pandemic rules while in Downing Street — had been referred to police over other potential violations found in the process of collecting evidence. The inquiry’s request for unredacted versions of Johnson’s diaries and WhatsApp messages were the focus of much of the media coverage.
But the controversy is rapidly engulfing Sunak, whose broadcast pledge to ensure lessons “are learned” from the pandemic — and that the government would approach the inquiry “in the spirit of transparency and candor” — sat awkwardly with the reluctance to hand over records from the period.
The government reiterated Tuesday it regards material requested by Heather Hallett, the retired judge selected by Johnson to run the Covid inquiry, to be “unambiguously irrelevant” and that disclosing it would violate privacy. Though Sunak said the government is still considering its next steps, conceding now would be an embarrassing U-Turn.
Read More: Boris Johnson to Be Fined Along With Sunak Over ‘Partygate’
Yet digging in is also politically risky. The governing Conservative Party likes to talk about the pandemic in terms of the vaccine roll-out that allowed normal life to resume. But among the general public and especially among the Tories’ opponents, a death toll of almost 224,000, allegations of profiteering and an early shortage of testing are a major part of the collective memory.
Beyond their fines, the pandemic is sensitive for both Johnson and Sunak. The former prime minister has been accused of missing emergency meetings as the coronavirus took hold across Europe and was widely criticized for being too late to order the first lockdown.
For Sunak, the pandemic put him on the political map via a series of support measures to help people weather the economic storm. But his signature “Eat Out to Help Out” program to encourage people back into restaurants triggered a backlash from health experts who said it helped to spread coronavirus.
More broadly, rehashing arguments about how the government handled the pandemic is not what Sunak wants to talk about with a general election expected next year and the Labour Party holding a double-digit lead in polls.
The government’s approach to the inquiry looks set, ironically, to keep it on the front pages. Last year’s advice from Eadie, responsible for aiding the government on issues of the highest national importance, laid the groundwork.
The barrister argued that the inquiry is likely to request disclosures that concern ministers still in office, and “will be extremely recent and of the greatest political sensitivity.” It was a situation that the principle of collective responsibility is meant to avoid, he wrote.
He also revealed that civil servants had graded documents sought by the inquiry using a traffic light system, based on political sensitivity.
In effect, the government is gambling on voters agreeing that political conventions trump an inquiry into a health crisis of historic proportion. Opposition parties smell blood, accusing Sunak of attempting a cover-up.
“This interference only serves to undermine the inquiry’s crucial job of getting to the truth,” Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said in a statement. “This is a government with much to hide.”
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