The Cabinet Office is withholding information about the Prime Minister’s meetings over a crucial 43-day period, Sascha Lavin reports

The Cabinet Office is refusing to declare the external meetings that Boris Johnson held during a 43-day period at the start of the pandemic, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal. 

The Cabinet Office denied a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, that asked for a list of all the meetings held by the Prime Minister with external individuals between 19 March and 1 May 2020. Instead, this paper was accused of making a “vexatious” request. 

Currently, no meetings are listed by the Government as having taken place between Johnson and external figures or businesses during this period. The Byline Intelligence Team understands that Government departments are not required to declare meetings held over the phone – a major transparency loophole that opened up during the pandemic, when in-person events were banned.

This comes as Johnson rewrote the Ministerial Code last month to remove all references in the foreword to transparency, honesty, integrity and accountability. Since entering Number 10, Johnson and his Government have faced a barrage of criticism for avoiding scrutiny – from dodging questions surrounding ‘Partygate’ to relying on a Cabinet Office unit to block information releases. 

The Cabinet Office claims that our FOI request to share a list of the Prime Minister’s meetings was “‘fishing’ for information” and required “a burdensome and disproportionate amount of resources”.


Working From Home?

The Prime Minister tested positive for COVID-19 on 27 March 2020 and, following a stint in intensive care, officially returned to work a month later, apologising for being “away from my desk for much longer than I would have liked.”

On 27 March, Johnson posted a video on Twitter in which he said that he had tested positive for Coronavirus and would be self-isolating but assured viewers, “we’re working clearly the whole time on our programme to beat the virus.”

Nine days later, Johnson’s Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the Prime Minister was “working away” and had his “hand on the tiller.”

Confusingly, on 6 April, three hours before Johnson was admitted to an intensive care unit, the then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, promised that the Prime Minister “still remains in charge of the Government” from his hospital bed. 

Yet, the Cabinet Office has not published any meetings held between the Prime Minister and external individuals and organisations during this period and refuses to confirm whether Johnson held any any meetings at all.

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Even if – contrary to his ministers’ comments – Johnson was in fact unable to work during the entire month that he was suffering from COVID, there are still 18 days during which Johnson appears to have held no meetings with external individuals and organisations, according to the Cabinet Office’s publicly available transparency documents.

The publications, released in July and October 2020, have not recorded a single meeting between Johnson and external parties during the 43-day period from 19 March 2020. This was at the height of the Government’s response to the first wave of the virus – with Johnson announcing the country’s first lockdown on 23 March. For comparison, the then Health Minister Lord James Bethell held 93 meetings with external individuals and organisations during the same time period. 

However, because the Cabinet Office refused to share a list of the Prime Minister’s meetings between 19 March and 1 May 2020, it is not known whether the Prime Minister held no external meetings for 43 days at this crucial point in the pandemic, or if, in fact, the Cabinet Office has failed to publish the external meetings that were held.

Byline Times previously revealed that 27 meetings held in April 2020 with companies that went on to win £1.14 billion in Government contracts were omitted from the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) original records.

This paper also uncovered a meeting between technology firms and Hancock at the outset of the pandemic that the DHSC failed to declare for 21 months. 

If Johnson did hold meetings with external parties, the Cabinet Office would already be 19 months late in declaring them.

Byline Times has asked the Cabinet Office to review its decision about withholding information about the Prime Minister’s meetings at the start of the pandemic. This newspaper will report back with further developments.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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