Matt Hancock is facing a series of claims based on a leaked cache of over 100,000 WhatsApp messages that provide insight into the way the UK government operated at the height of the pandemic.
They include the suggestion that, as health secretary, he has rejected the advice of England’s chief medical officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, to test everyone going to nursing homes in England for Covid-19.
Hancock vehemently denies the clinical board overturning. A spokesperson called the claim “categorically false”.
What is the main claim?
Whitty told Hancock in April 2020 that there should be tests for “everyone who goes to nursing homes”, according to the messages.
On April 14, 2020, Hancock told aides that Whitty had conducted an “evidence review” and recommended “testing of everyone going into asylum and segregation pending the outcome”.
Hancock said the advice represented a “good positive step” and that “we should put it in the document”, to which an aide replied that he had sent the request “to action”.
The message came a day before the publication of Covid-19: Our Action Plan for Social Care for Adults, a government document that outlines plans to keep the care sector running during the pandemic.
But the April 14 exchanges suggest that Hancock ended up rejecting the guidance, telling an aide the change only “muddy the waters” and introduced mandatory testing only for those coming from hospitals rather than the community.
Hancock said he would rather “leave out” the pledge to test everyone who enters community nursing homes and “just commit to testing and isolating EVERYONE who goes into the hospital’s care.”
“I don’t think community engagement adds anything and muddies the waters,” he said.
How did Matt Hancock respond?
The claim that he rejected clinical advice about testing in nursing homes was “utterly wrong”, a spokesman said, because Hancock was told it was “not possible at this time” to carry out the tests.
The spokesman said the U-turn came after an operational meeting in which Hancock was advised that it was not possible to test everyone entering nursing homes.
“These stolen messages were doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice about home testing,” the spokesperson said. “This is totally wrong.”
Hancock “eagerly accepted” Whitty’s advice, the spokesperson said, but “later that day he convened an operational meeting on the delivery of tests to nursing homes, where he was told that it was not possible to test everyone who entered. in nursing homes, which he also accepted. ”.
“Matt concluded that testing people leaving the hospital for nursing homes should be prioritized because of the higher risks of transmission, as it has not been possible to require that everyone who goes to nursing homes be tested.”
Guidance stating that tests must be carried out for everyone entering nursing homes was not introduced until 14 August 2020. Thousands of people in nursing homes in England have died from Covid between April and August 2020.
Hancock previously stated that he has put a “protective ring around nursing homes” since the beginning of the pandemic.
What other claims have been made?
Other WhatsApp messages show that in September 2020, when there was a huge backlog of tests, one of Hancock’s advisers helped send a test to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home.
The aide texted Hancock to say the lab had “lost” the original test for one of the sons of the then-Leader of Commons, “so we have a courier going to their family home tonight.”
He added: “Jacob’s spad (special adviser) is aware and has helped line everything up, but you might want to text Jacob.”
The WhatsApp messages also show that Hancock texted his former boss George Osborne, the former Chancellor who edited the Evening Standard at the time, to “ask a favour”.
As he struggled to reach his own target of 100,000 Covid tests a day, Hancock told Osborne he had thousands of spare test slots, which is “obviously good news about the spread of the virus” but “difficult for my target” and asked for front-page coverage. .
Osborne replied, “Yes – of course – all you have to do tomorrow is give Standard a few exclusive words and I’ll tell the team to splatter it out.”
Hancock later added, “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!”
Hancock’s WhatsApp groups had names like “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 publicist, 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 on 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 “crafted to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
How did Isabel Oakeshott react?
Oakeshott, who described the lockdowns as an “utter disaster”, said she was releasing the messages because it would be “many years” before the end of the official Covid inquiry, which she claimed could be a “colossal whitewash”.
“That’s why I decided to release this sensational cache of private communications – because we absolutely cannot wait any longer for responses,” she said.