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Matt Hancock: What are the claims and counterclaims over leaked Covid messages?

Ex-health secretary battling over claims from 100,000 WhatsApp messages

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 01 March 2023 17:07 GMT
All the times Matt Hancock defended his Covid care home strategy

Former health secretary Matt Hancock is fighting claims he rejected advice while health secretary to give Covid tests to all residents going into English care homes.

The allegations are based on a trove of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages obtained by The Daily Telegraph giving an insight into the way government operated at the height of the pandemic.

But Mr Hancock’s spokesperson said the report was “flat wrong”, insisting that he had been told it was “not currently possible” to carry out the tests. The Independent takes a closer look at the claims and counterclaims.

Care homes

The crucial dispute on care home testing centres around a series of messages between Mr Hancock and his aide Allan Nixon.

Chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty is said to have told the then health secretary in April 2020 there should be testing for “all going into care homes”. In one message on 14 April, Mr Hancock described it as “obviously a good positive step”.

But he later messages his aide: “Tell me if I’m wrong but I would rather leave it out and just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital. I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters.”

Mr Hancock’s spokesperson said the Telegraph had “doctored” messages to leave out the crucial fact that the aide had not been to a meeting.

He said Mr Hancock had convened an operational meeting on delivering testing for care homes on 14 April “where he was advised it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes, which he also accepted”.

The spokesperson said: “Matt concluded that the testing of people leaving hospital for care homes should be prioritised because of the higher risks of transmission, as it wasn’t possible to mandate everyone going into care homes got tested.”

But the Telegraph maintains that the texts were published in full. Sources said they were “baffled” by the suggestion that the messages were doctored.

Matt Hancock has denied rejecting official advice (AP)

Testing targets

According to the Telegraph’s investigation, Mr Hancock expressed concerns that expanding care home testing could “get in the way” of the target of 100,000 daily Covid tests he set out at the start of April 2020.

The newspaper said on 24 April a civil servant in Mr Hancock’s office sent him a message with advice that the department should “prioritise testing of asymptomatic staff and residents” in care homes hit by a Covid outbreak.

Mr Hancock is said to have replied: “This is OK so long as it does not get in the way of actually fulfilling the capacity in testing.”

The spokesperson for Mr Hancock said he went “as far as possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives”.

He added: “It is outrageous that this distorted account of the pandemic is being pushed with partial leaks, spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda, which would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives if followed. What the messages do show is a lot of people working hard to save lives.”

Answering an urgent question from Labour, health minister Helen Whately told MPs the “importance of testing was never in doubt”, but added “tough decisions about prioritisation had to be made”.

Ms Whately added: “I should mention that selective snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and ... misleading insight into the machinery of government at the time.”

Ms Whately also quoted from a government email, sent soon after the WhatsApp exchanges reported by the Telegraph, which stated that the government “should aspire” to testing everyone going into care homes “as soon as capacity allows”.

Boris Johnson and George Osborne exchanged messages about testing with Hancock (PA)

Exchanges with Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Osborne

Boris Johnson sent Mr Hancock messages in June 2020 about his frustrations over the failure to expand testing quickly enough. “What is wrong with us as a country that we can’t fix this? … I am going quietly crackers about this.”

Mr Hancock responded: “Don’t go crackers. We have test capacity enough to do this. We now have the biggest testing capacity in Europe.”

The leaked messages also show an apparently friendly relationship with former chancellor George Osborne, then editor of the Evening Standard, as Mr Hancock battled to meet his own target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day.

He sent the newspaper editor a message in April 2020 saying: “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!” as he said he wanted to “call in a favour” and pushed for favourable front-page coverage.

Mr Hancock said he has thousands of spare testing slots which is “obvs good news about spread of virus” but “hard for my target” as he asked for coverage.

The leaked messages show Mr Obsorne was critical of the testing regime. “No one thinks testing is going well Matt.” But he also offered advice: “Trying to spread the responsibility from you to Number 10 – I’ve said it before.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg had a Covid test couriered to his home, messages suggest (AFP/Getty)

The “lockdown files” investigation also contains claims that officials couriered Jacob Rees-Mogg a Covid test for one of his children while there was a shortage.

In September 2020, during a severe backlog in testing, messages suggest an adviser to Mr Hancock helped get a test sent to Mr Rees-Mogg’s home.

The aide messaged Mr Hancock to say the lab had “lost” the original test for one of the then Commons leader’s children, “so we’ve got a courier going to their family home tonight”.

Commenting on the claim, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “The Covid inquiry must look into reports Conservative ministers were able to get priority access to tests at a time of national shortage.”

Sir Keir Starmer used PMQs to attack Mr Hancock for “portraying himself as a hero” in his memoir. The Labour leader also called on Rishi Sunak to end the “insulting and ghoulish spectacle” by ensuring the Covid inquiry concludes by the end of 2023.

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