(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s government is looking at ways it can avoid a court showdown with the UK’s official inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic, amid accusations the prime minister is trying to keep key information secret.
If the government can agree on a way to resolve its dispute over what it has to disclose to the inquiry without resorting to a judicial review, then it will, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. An initial court hearing scheduled for Tuesday didn’t take place, and as things stand, is due to happen around June 30.
Read More: Sunak Finds Himself Drawn Into the One Feud He Hoped to Avoid
The person cautioned, however, that the government and inquiry have previously explored potential solutions without coming to an agreement.
The government’s refusal to hand over unredacted pandemic documents, including WhatsApp messages and personal diaries belonging to then leader Boris Johnson, has turned into a public relations disaster for Sunak. What ministers have said is a legitimate attempt to keep personal information private has seen the prime minister accused of a cover-up that has enraged families of Covid victims and given opposition parties an easy target.
Johnson’s behavior has played a key part in how events are playing out. The former premier — who was fined by police for breaking pandemic rules imposed by his own administration — was outraged that his state-funded lawyers were involved in the process in which alleged additional breaches outlined in his diaries were handed to the authorities.
But Johnson has since said he will hand over his unredacted messages directly to the inquiry — a move that bypasses the government and undermines Sunak’s argument about the need to protect privacy.
It has also shifted the focus onto areas of the UK’s Covid response over which Sunak himself is politically vulnerable, especially the charge that as Chancellor of the Exchequer he prioritized the economy over containing the virus.
Regardless, the optics of effectively taking legal action against an inquiry set up by the government have not been kind to Sunak. Addressing the government’s application for a judicial review for the first time on Tuesday, Heather Hallett — the retired judge chosen by Johnson to lend credence to the probe — made clear she won’t back down.
“In my view, it is for the inquiry chair to decide what is relevant or potentially relevant,” she said in a statement.
Hugo Keith, lead counsel to the inquiry, said he still expected the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office to hand over unredacted material including WhatsApp messages, as well as government chat records on the Google Spaces app.
An old phone belonging to Johnson, containing messages from the key early period of the pandemic but turned off on security advice, will be handed to the Cabinet Office so its contents can be retrieved securely, Keith said.
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