Matt Hancock is facing a series of allegations based on a cache leak of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages that provide insight into how the UK government operated at the height of the pandemic.
They include the suggestion that while he was health secretary he rejected advice from England’s chief medical officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, to test everyone who goes to nursing homes in England for Covid-19.
Hancock categorically denies invalidating clinical advice. A spokesman called the claim “categorically untrue”.
What is the main claim?
Whitty told Hancock in April 2020 that there would have to be tests for “everyone to go to nursing homes,” according to the messages.
On April 14, 2020, Hancock told his aides that Whitty had conducted a “review of the evidence” and recommended “testing of all people going into nursing homes and segregation pending the result.”
Hancock said the advice represented a “good positive step” and that “we need to put it on the docket”, to which an aide replied that he had sent the request “into action”.
The message came a day before the publication of Covid-19: Our Action Plan for Adult Social Care, a government document outlining plans to keep the care sector running during the pandemic.
But exchanges since April 14 indicate that Hancock ultimately rejected the guidance, telling an aide that the move would only “muddy the waters” and introduced mandatory testing only for those coming from hospitals, not the community.
Hancock said he would prefer to “rule out” the commitment to test everyone entering care homes from the community and “simply commit to testing and isolating EVERYONE who goes into care from hospital”.
“I don’t think community engagement adds anything and muddies the waters,” he said.
How did Matt Hancock react?
The allegation that he rejected clinical advice about tests at the care home was “plainly wrong”, a spokesman said, because Hancock was told it was “not possible” for the tests to be carried out at the moment.
The spokesman said the reversal followed an operational meeting in which Hancock was told it was not possible to test everyone entering care homes.
“These stolen messages have been doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice about tests at the care home,” the spokesman said. “This is completely wrong.”
Hancock “enthusiastically accepted” Whitty’s advice, the spokesman said, but “later that day he convened an operational meeting on the provision of tests for care homes where he was informed that it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes , which he also accepted. “.
“Matt concluded that testing people leaving hospital for nursing homes should be prioritized because of the higher risks of transmission, as it was not possible to test everyone going into care homes.”
Guidance stating that everyone entering care homes should be tested was not introduced until 14 August 2020. Thousands of people in care homes in England died from Covid between April and August 2020.
Hancock had previously claimed to have put a “protective ring around care homes” since the start of the pandemic.
What other claims have been made?
Other WhatsApp messages show that in September 2020, when there was a huge delay in testing, one of Hancock’s advisers helped send a test to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home.
The aide texted Hancock to say the lab had “missed” the original test for one of the then Commons leader’s children, “so we’ve got a courier going to their family home tonight”.
He added: “Jacob’s sword [special adviser] he’s in the know and helped straighten it all out, but you might want to text Jacob.”
The WhatsApp messages also show Hancock texted his former boss George Osborne, the ex-chancellor who was then editing the Evening Standard, to “call in a favor”.
As he struggled to meet his own target of 100,000 Covid tests a day, Hancock told Osborne he had thousands of back-up testing sites which are “obviously good news for the spread of the virus” but “difficult for my target” and called for cover on the first page.
Osborne replied: “Yes – of course – all you need to do tomorrow is say a few exclusive words to the Standard and I’ll tell the team to splash it.”
Hancock later added, “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!”
Hancock’s WhatsApp groups had names such as “Top Teams”, “Covid-19 senior group” and “crisis management” – the name of a group created to deal with the fallout from his relationship with his assistant, Gina Coladangelo.
How did WhatsApp messages come about?
The Daily Telegraph obtained more than 100,000 messages sent between Hancock and other ministers and officials at the height of the pandemic.
The messages were passed to the newspaper by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who has been critical of the lockdowns. Oakeshott received copies of the texts while helping Hancock write his own book, Pandemic Diaries.
Hancock’s spokesman said the messages were “twisted to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
How did Isabel Oakeshott react?
Oakeshott, who has described the lockdowns as an “unmitigated disaster”, said she was releasing the messages because it would take “many years” for the official investigation into Covid to end, which she claimed could be a “colossal fluke”.
“That’s why I’ve decided to release this shocking cache of private communications – because we can’t wait any longer for answers,” he said.