THE UK Cabinet Office faces “criminal sanctions” unless it discloses thousands of unredacted documents including WhatsApps from former prime minister Boris Johnson, according to one of Scotland’s most prominent lawyers.

The row centres around orders given to the Tory government’s central office in April and May of this year, which have now been made public.

First, on April 28, chair of the Covid-19 UK Inquiry Heather Hallett issued a notice under the 2005 Inquiries Act for unredacted copies of a range of documents – including Johnsons’ WhatsApp messages, diaries, and notebooks – that she considered to be potentially relevant to her work.

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The Cabinet Office claimed that it could redact “unambiguously irrelevant material” from the documents before handing them over to the inquiry. It then went a step further, and on May 15 applied for Hallett’s notice to be revoked.

But on May 22, the UK Covid Inquiry refused the Cabinet Office’s bid and renewed its demand for full and unredacted disclosure, with the threat of criminal sanctions if they fail to comply. The government has been given until 4pm on May 30 to release the documents in full.

Aamer Anwar, a prominent Scots human rights lawyer who acts on behalf of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the situation was “unprecedented”.

He said that, under section 35 of the Inquiries Act 2005, failure to comply with the order without reasonable excuse is a criminal offence, punishable on summary conviction with a fine not exceeding £1000 and/or imprisonment for a maximum of 51 weeks.

The National: Aamer Anwar is representing former Scotland internationals Majid Haq and Qasim Sheikh (Lesley Martin/PA).

Anwar (above) went on: “The families we represent welcome the unprecedented and robust response of the chair to the Cabinet Office and the failure of the Cabinet Office to disclose all the material requested.

“The Government should be answerable to the people, there must be no hiding place for those involved in decision making. No individual, no matter how powerful, can be allowed to interfere with the pursuit of truth, justice, and accountability by this inquiry.

“Those who lost their lives to Covid-19 deserve nothing less.”

The Cabinet Office has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.

But the Government believes it has no duty to disclose “unambiguously irrelevant” material, Downing Street said.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: “We established the inquiry to ensure the actions of the state during the pandemic are examined as rigorously and candidly as possible to ensure we learn the right lessons for the future.

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“The Government remains committed to its obligations to the inquiry and in line with the law.

“We are providing all relevant material to the inquiry.

“We have, of course, continued to comply with requests in line with that principle so that it can undertake its vitally important work.”

Elsewhere, it has emerged that Johnson ditching government-appointed lawyers representing him in the Covid inquiry after he was referred to police over further potential lockdown breaches.

In a letter to the chair of the Covid inquiry on Wednesday, the former prime minister wrote: “You may be aware that I am currently instructing new solicitors to represent me in the Inquiry.

“That process is well underway but is in the hands of the Cabinet Office to agree funding and other practical arrangements. I have no control over the timing of that process.

“As of today, I am unrepresented and my counsel team have been instructed not to provide me with any advice.”

Downing Street declined to say whether Johnson would lose the whip if police were to charge him with further lockdown breaches.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary said “that’s a hypothetical question” and said she would not comment while police are looking into the matter.

Asked whether Rishi Sunak has spoken to his predecessor about the controversy, she said: “I don’t believe that they have had a discussion about this.”

Quizzed on what Sunak would say to those claiming Johnson is the victim of a stitch up, she said: “There is an established process for these matters to be looked at and those processes are going on and it’s right that when concerns arise those processes are followed.

“It’s up to MPs to make their own judgments but it’s certainly not something the Prime Minister is doing.”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: "The fact the Covid Inquiry has had to invoke legal powers to compel the handover of crucial documents suggests that this is a Government with much to hide.

"Rather than fighting legal battles to withhold evidence, it is essential that ministers now comply so the public is able to get to the truth and those responsible can be held to account."