Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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UK government launches legal battle with own Covid inquiry

An investigation into the government response to Covid-19 has become embroiled in controversy before it has even begun, with the Sunak administration refusing to hand over the unredacted WhatsApp messages of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

(CN) — The United Kingdom government finds itself in conflict with its own public inquiry into the state response to the coronavirus pandemic this week, after launching a judicial review in a bid to prevent having to hand over evidence in its possession.

Barrister Heather Hallett, chair of the U.K. Covid-19 Inquiry, has requested unredacted WhatsApp messages of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson as part of her evidence-gathering duties. The government had previously supplied Hallett with redacted versions of his messages, but have refused to go any further, describing the unredacted messages as “unambiguously irrelevant” to the scope of the inquiry. The Cabinet Office further complained that the request represents an “unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government.”

Hallett argues that it is for her – and not the government – to determine the relevance of the evidence provided to the inquiry.

The dispute is in part the latest in an ongoing rift between Johnson, now a much reduced figure in British politics following his scandal-ridden premiership, and the current administration of Rishi Sunak. The government has claimed that Johnson has only handed over correspondence from April 2021 onwards, thus leaving more than a year of key communications in his possession.

In a tit-for-tat development, Johnson has claimed he has no objection to his communications being handed over – even going as far as personally writing to Hallet and offering to send the unredacted messages himself if the government refuses to comply.

In addition to describing the material as irrelevant, the government claims that the requested evidence would also compromise the privacy of other members of government Johnson was in communication with. However, handing over messages does not mean they will be made public – but rather that they will be reviewed by the inquiry to determine their relevance and importance.

A number of current government ministers were in senior positions before and during the pandemic, including Sunak himself, who as chancellor was responsible for economic management during the crisis.

The government’s chances of winning its judicial review do not appear to be strong. Set up by Johnson in 2021, the Covid-19 inquiry was given wide-ranging powers in terms of evidence collection, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and take evidence under oath. Hallett was subsequently selected to head the investigation in January 2022, on account of her experience and strong reputation.

The inquiry emerged amid significant public and political pressure during a period in which allegations that the pandemic response had been mishandled were widespread. Key issues under investigation include the procurement of personal protective equipment, the delayed implementation of lockdown measures, and the discharge of untested hospital patients into care homes.

As a result of the scale of the government response – which encompassed major decisions in all senior departments – it is expected to be one of the biggest public investigations the British state has undertaken to date.

If the government does succeed in its judicial review, then the legitimacy of the inquiry itself is likely to come into question. Under these circumstances, it has been suggested that Hallet herself might have to resign, having lost the ability to determine what evidence is relevant to the investigation.

Elkan Abrahamson, the legal representative for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, described the judicial review process as “existential” for the inquiry’s legitimacy, and stated that if the courts sided with the government “the only logical response of the chair is to resign because she can’t properly do her job.”

As things stand, oral evidence for the inquiry is scheduled to begin this summer, and will start by examining the U.K.’s preparedness for the pandemic. Key witnesses in this stage of the inquiry will be former Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osbourne, who were in office from 2010 to 2016.

A new report released on Monday accused Cameron and Osbourne’s wide-ranging austerity program of being responsible for running down the country’s capacity to respond to a pandemic-style emergency.

“In the NHS [National Health Service] and social care, funding cuts put staff levels in the danger zone," according to the report published by the Trade Union Congress. "Cuts to social security pushed many more people below the poverty line, leaving them more vulnerable to infection, and cuts to health and safety left workers exposed to rogue employers who cut corners and put their lives at risk.”

The focus on austerity as a factor in pandemic preparedness follows the British Medical Association’s description of the early 2010s austerity program as “Covid’s little helper.” Cameron and Osbourne are expected to push back against claims that their policies left the country unable to respond effectively to the pandemic, and as a result cost lives.

The inquiry will then move through several further stages variously covering areas such as political governance, health care systems and vaccination development – the latter widely viewed as a more successful aspect of the government response. It is scheduled to run until at least 2025.

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice continues to push for an expedited inquiry process to prevent key evidence being lost. In a statement on its website, the group says, “Every single U.K. citizen deserves to understand how and why those in charge of our public institutions were unable to prevent so many deaths and such widespread heartbreak.”

Categories / Government, Health, International, Politics

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