Matt Hancock wanted to ‘frighten the pants off’ public about Covid strain, leaked messages show

Latest messages show ex-health secretary was worried Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme was contributing to the spread of Covid

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 06 March 2023 08:04 GMT
‘This is my last warning’: Isabel Oakeshott terminates interview after clash with Cathy Newman

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Matt Hancock 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 set of WhatsApp exchanges show the then-health secretary and others discussing how to use an announcement about the variant to scare the public into changing their behaviour.

The messages, among 100,000 passed to the Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, show cabinet secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital”.

They also show Mr Hancock’s repeated concerns that the then chancellor Rishi Sunak’s signature Eat Out To Help Out initiative was contributing to the spread of Covid.

Mr Sunak and Mr Hancock were revealed to have complained about Dominic Cummings’ “nightmare” tenure as Boris Johnson’s top adviser at No 10.

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 [off] everyone with the new strain.”

The conversation, on 13 December, came following concerns about the rapid spread of the virus in southeast England. On 14 December Mr Hancock announced that a new variant had been identified in the UK.

London and southeast England were to enter a new Tier 4 alert level, it was announced on 19 December, when Mr Johnson also cancelled a promised Christmas “bubbles” policy allowing families to meet.

The entirety of England entered the third national lockdown on 6 January 2021. Messages from 10 January show Mr Hancock and the cabinet secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance.

Mr Hancock tells him, after a brief discussion on angling, that he “honestly wouldn’t move on any small things unless we move on a lot”.

Mr Case agrees: “I think that is exactly right. Small stuff looks ridiculous. Ramping up messaging – the fear/guilt factor vital. I suspect London Nightingale coming into use will feel like a big public moment. Especially as I guess it will be full with a couple of days (based on current data).”

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

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak is 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 economic 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 let’s not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”

In December 2020, the then-health secretary referred to the scheme as “eat out to help the virus get about”.

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 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.

Ms Oakeshott was originally given the material by Mr Hancock while they were collaborating on his memoir of his time in government during the pandemic.

He has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”, arguing that the selective release of messages gives only a “partial, biased account”.

In a statement this week, Mr Hancock said that all the materials for his book have been made available to the official Covid-19 inquiry. Ms Oakeshott has said the disclosures are in the public interest.

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