THE UK Government remains on a collision course with the Covid-19 Inquiry over access to evidence after a cabinet minister said it would get what it was “right for it to have”.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said the government would be transparent, but with the “important qualification” that this would be “where it is appropriate to be so”.

The inquiry’s chair Lady Hallett has given the UK Government until 4pm on Thursday to hand over Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, notebooks and diaries.

The deadline had been 4pm on Tuesday, but this was extended by 48 hours after the Government sought - and was refused - a six-day extension to Monday June 5.

As well as resisting the timetable, the Cabinet Office claimed it didn’t have the  material sought, which covers Mr Johnson’s time as Prime Minister when the pandemic struck.

It previously objected to the release of “unambiguously irrelevant” material, prompting Lady Hallett to insist the inquiry would decide what was relevant, not the government.

The Inquiry also said it could take legal action against the Government to obtain the unredacted files, while the Government hinted it might go to court to keep it secret.

The Cabinet Office’s late change of tack to claiming that it didn’t have the material prompted Labour to suggest there was a cover-up to spare ministers embarrassment.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused Rishi Sunak of being “slippery”.

He told Sky News: “I think the prime minister looks really slippery today. 

“He says he wants the government to cooperate with the inquiry but the government has been withholding information the inquiry has asked for.

“One minute the government says the messages they have are immaterial; the next minute they’re saying they don’t exist. Which is it?”

Lady Hallett has demanded a witness statement from a senior civil servant accompanied by a statement of truth confirming the documents are not held if the Cabinet Office fails to produce them by the new Thursday deadline.

Mr Stride said the government intended to be “absolutely transparent and candid” and had already provided 55,000 documents, eight witness statements and corporate witness statements to the UK-wide inquiry.

He said: “I’m absolutely certain and confident that the Cabinet Office will be engaged in this in exactly the right kind of way, and in the kind of spirit that I’ve just outlined and making sure that we are absolutely robustly transparent where it is appropriate to be so.

“I think that’s an important qualification, so that the inquiry has all the information that it is right for it to have.”

Allies of Mr Johnson say he has “no objection” to handing over the evidence.

Mr Sunak has insisted the Government is acting “in a spirit of transparency and candour”.

READ MORE: Row over blood sports lobbying as MSPs consider shooting laws

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said evidence had seemingly “gone missing”, adding: “It must be found and handed over as requested if the whiff of a cover-up is to be avoided and bereaved families are to get the answers they deserve.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman flatly denied the allegation of a cover-up, saying: “No. We want to learn the lessons about the actions of the state during the pandemic, we want that to be done rigorously and candidly.”

He said there was no requirement to “permanently store or record every WhatsApp”, with messages related to decision-making instead copied over to the official record.

He said it was “down to individuals to decide what personal information they are able to hand over”.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “We are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation.

"This includes the WhatsApp messages of Government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”

Mr Johnson’s team says the notebooks and WhatsApp messages were handed to Cabinet Office lawyers but he has since parted ways with his Government-appointed lawyers.

READ MORE: MSPs brand SNP minister 'discourteous' in row over care reform costs

The former PM says he has not had a request from the Cabinet Office since telling officials in a letter on Friday that any request for material must be in writing to him.

Whitehall officials fear setting a precedent by handing over documents in unredacted form, rather than deciding themselves what material is relevant to the inquiry.

However, refusing to comply with the request to hand over the documents - which include texts between Mr Johnson and a host of government figures including Mr Sunak, his then Chancellor - could lead to a court battle with the inquiry.