Top civil servant warned Boris Johnson was ‘nationally distrusted’, WhatsApp leak reveals

Simon Case’s remarks about lack of trust in then-PM emerge from conversation with Matt Hancock

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 06 March 2023 07:45 GMT
WhatsApp leaks offer ‘view into psyche of Hancock’, not government workings, minister says

Boris Johnson was a “nationally distrusted figure” during the Covid crisis, the UK’s top civil servant warned according to the latest leaks of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages.

Remarks by Simon Case from October 2020 were published as part of the latest tranche of the former health secretary’s messages leaked by Isabel Oakeshott.

The cabinet secretary said to Mr Hancock that the public should be told to self-isolate by “trusted local figures, not nationally distrusted figures like the PM”.

The remarks published by The Telegraph appear to form part of a conversation around testing capability. Mr Hancock writes: “I am going to get stuck in and drive this roll out. The PM is completely right on this. Delegate delegate delegate.”

Mr Case agrees: “My concern is that we can figure out how to test, what we don’t know how to do is get people to isolate. We are losing this war because of behaviour – this is the thing we have to turn around (which probably also relies on people hearing about isolation from trusted local figures, not nationally distrusted figures like the PM, sadly).”

The Cabinet Office declined to comment on leaks. A spokesperson for Mr Johnson said: “It is not appropriate to comment on these leaks. The public inquiry provides the right process for these issues to be examined.”

Mr Hancock also told aides he wanted to “frighten the pants off everyone” about the Kent variant of Covid to ensure compliance with lockdown rules, leaked messages have revealed.

The latest messages show that in December 2020, there was concern London mayor Sadiq Khan could follow the example of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who had clashed with the government over the decision to impose stringent lockdown curbs.

Mr Hancock’s adviser said: “Rather than doing too much forward signalling, we can roll pitch with the new strain.” The then health secretary responded: “We frighten the pants of everyone with the new strain.”

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak came under pressure to answer questions about whether Treasury officials ignored evidence that his summer 2020 Eat Out to Help Out scheme helped spread the virus.

On 24 August 2020, Mr Hancock told Mr Case he had “kept it out of the news” in a message suggesting that the scheme boosting the economy had had a negative impact in terms of infections.

He said: “We have had lots of feedback that [Eat Out to Help Out] is causing problems… I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious. So please please lets not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”

Rishi Sunak places Eat Out to Help Out sticker in window (PA)

A study by Warwick University found in October 2020 that the scheme may be responsible for 8 to 17 per cent of Covid clusters in the previous couple of months, but the government dismissed the “back of the envelope” calculations.

Prof Jonathan Portes of King’s College London said: “It looks on the face of it that [the Treasury] was deliberately trying to conceal what the evidence was about Eat Out to Help Out.”

The Telegraph also reported on Mr Hancock’s apparent concerns over a question regarding the role that Gina Coladangelo – the former aide with whom he had the affair that forced his resignation – had played in a G7 health ministers’ meeting in June 2021.

After being informed about the question, the former health secretary is said to have responded: “This will be another s-show if it goes wrong.”

The messages appear to show the eventual written response to a Labour question was watered down to remove any mention of Ms Coladangelo playing an “advisory role” to Mr Hancock.

Matt Hancock at a Covid briefing (Getty)

The former health secretary was also reportedly irked by the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, during the pandemic and even said ousting him would be a “massive improvement”.

The messages show Mr Hancock’s adviser Allan Nixon warned the health secretary that “you look like you’re losing grip in front of No 10” when he was angry at Mr Stevens in a meeting. Mr Hancock replied: “It’s OK – he needs to know he is massively fucking up.”

Cabinet minister Chris Heaton Harris told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that the leaked messages reveal a “view into the psyche” of Mr Hancock as opposed to the workings of government.

“I think viewers would expect that politicians being human beings would express things in a human way, and I don’t think that you would find one politician that wasn’t afraid at the beginning of the lockdown,” he said when asked about the idea of scare tactics.

George Osborne, who appears in some of the leaked WhatsApp messages from Mr Hancock, defended him as one of the “sensible” ministers during the pandemic. Speaking on Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show, Mr Osborne claimed the ex-health secretary had been was a “rational” voice in government.

The latest messages also show Mr Hancock criticising vaccines tsar Dame Kate Bingham.

Exchanges from October 2020 show him saying she “has view and a wacky way of expressing them & is totally unreliable”.

“She regards anything that isn’t her idea as political interference.”

Dame Kate used an interview with the Financial Times to claim that vaccinating everyone in the UK was “not going to happen” and the country needed to just “vaccinate everyone at risk”.

The paper details a number of complaints about her from Mr Hancock.

The UK was the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine and begin a national rollout of injections, with Dame Kate’s team securing access to a range of different jabs. During her time working with the government, she came under pressure over a reported £670,000 contract for public relations support and was also forced to deny claims she shared commercially sensitive information with investors.

Elsewhere, Mr Hancock also complains in February 2021 about Dame Kate and Clive Dix, who took over as chairman after her six-month term came to an end, amid concerns about UK access to vaccines from the Serum Institute of India.

A spokesman for Dame Kate told the paper: “These WhatsApps suggest that Matt Hancock was not aware of the published and agreed government vaccine procurement policy, did not read the reports by and about the work of the Vaccine Taskforce, and did not understand the difference between complex biological manufacturing and PPE procurement.”

A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said: “As we’ve seen all week, these stories are wrong as they’re based on an entirely partial account.

“In the case of vaccines, Matt drove the goal of getting everyone vaccinated, often against resistance in the system. Ultimately he prevailed, thank goodness, and we got the first vaccine in the world, for everyone. Matt set all this out in his book.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in