- By Paul Seddon
- Politics reporter
Rishi Sunak says he is not embarrassed by the messages seen by the Covid investigation, despite the legal wrangling over their disclosure.
The government has taken the unprecedented step of suing the commission of inquiry over its demands to see unmodified WhatsApp messages sent during the pandemic.
But the prime minister insisted he was being transparent in his approach.
He added that he was providing information himself, which was taking “a lot of my time”.
The investigation asked to see unerased messages on former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s phone, between him and around 40 politicians and officials, including Mr Sunak.
But the government says some of them are irrelevant to investigative work, and could jeopardize individuals’ privacy if delivered unaltered.
Last week, it launched a lawsuit against the investigation over its demand to see unaltered WhatsApp messages, as well as Johnson’s notebooks.
Speaking to BBC political editor Chris Mason during a two-day visit to the US, Sunak said he could not comment on details as the case was still ongoing.
But he insisted the government had acted “openly and transparently”, including disclosing more than 55,000 documents so far, with “more to come”.
When asked directly if he was worried about something coming out that might embarrass him personally, he replied: “No, not at all.
“I also cooperate and provide information for the investigation,” he added. “It actually takes up a lot of my time, and it’s true that I do.”
Labor deputy leader Angela Rayner questioned his response, writing on Twitter: “Why are you taking legal action to hide them? [the messages]? “
The inquiry, set up in May 2021, is investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic and public hearings are due to begin next week.
Johnson said he was happy to hand over unbranded WhatsApps on his phone dating back to May 2021, about a year into the pandemic response.
He says he was unable to deliver the messages before that point, because the messages were on his old phone, which he changed for security reasons.
However, he said he was happy to work with security officials to find a way to ensure the messages were passed on to the investigation.
On Tuesday, the Covid inquiry solicitor said he had written to the Cabinet Office to obtain the old device and confirm how he would have “full access to it”.
Elsewhere in his interview with the BBC, Sunak said it was too early for a “final answer” about who was responsible for the damage to the Kakhovka Dam in Russian-occupied Ukraine, as British security officials continued their investigation.
But, he added, if Russia is found responsible, it will fit the “pattern of behavior” it has shown throughout the war to “attack” civilian infrastructure.
Ukraine blamed Russia for the dam’s collapse, which prompted the evacuation of thousands of people. Moscow denied responsibility, blaming the Ukrainian bombing.
Sunak also said the UK should have “confidence” in its ability to act as a global leader in regulating artificial intelligence, a topic he is set to discuss with President Biden at a White House meeting on Thursday.
The prime minister hopes to put the post-Brexit UK in the driving seat of efforts to set new global rules for emerging technology.
Some experts have questioned the extent to which the UK can craft new global rules outside the EU, with the UK now excluded from key groupings between European and US regulators such as the Technology and Trade Council.
But Sunak said the level of investment in AI in the UK, and the quality of British research, meant it could “shape the conversation” around future rules.
“Other than the United States, no other democratic country has such strength in artificial intelligence,” he said.
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