Ex-health minister dismisses claims he ignored expert advice as ‘distorted’ and ‘spun to fit anti-lockdown agenda’
Matt Hancock has denied claims he rejected advice to give coronavirus tests to all residents going into English care homes, labelling them a “distorted account” that is “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
A Daily Telegraph investigation based on a leaked trove of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages alleges the then health secretary ignored Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and instead prioritised testing those discharged from hospital to care homes.
It claims that Whitty told Hancock in April 2020 there should be testing for “all going into care homes”.
But the messages suggest Hancock rejected the guidance, telling an aide the move “muddies the waters”, and introduced mandatory testing for those coming from hospitals.
Hancock expressed concerns that expanding care home testing could “get in the way” of the target of 100,000 daily coronavirus tests he was desperate to hit, the investigation said.
A spokesperson for Hancock said the former health secretary was “considering all options” in response to the leak.
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.
“The full documents have already all been made available to the inquiry, which is the proper place for an objective assessment, so true lessons can be learned.
“Those who argue there shouldn’t have been a lockdown ignore the fact that half-a-million people would have died had we not locked down. And for those saying we should never lock down again, imagine if a disease killed half those infected, and half the population were going to get infected – as is happening right now with avian flu in birds. If that disease were in humans, of course we’d want to lockdown.
“The story spun on care homes is completely wrong. What the messages show is that Mr Hancock pushed for testing of those going into care homes when that testing was available.
“Instead of spinning and leaks we need the full, comprehensive inquiry, to ensure we are as well prepared as we can be for the next pandemic, whenever it comes. The Telegraph story is wrong, based on partial, spun leaks – and they did not approach Matt before publication.”
A source close to Hancock told the PA Media news agency: “She’s broken a legal NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Her behaviour is outrageous.”
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.
Hancock telling the former chancellor George Osborne, then editor of the Evening Standard, “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!” as he pushed for favourable front-page coverage.
Oakeshott, who has described lockdowns as an “unmitigated disaster”, said she was releasing the messages because it would take “many years” before the end of the official Covid inquiry, which she claimed could be a “colossal whitewash”.
Matt Hancock and Isabel Oakeshott at his book launch
“That’s why I’ve decided to release this sensational cache of private communications – because we absolutely cannot wait any longer for answers,” she said.
In one message, Hancock said Whitty had finished a review and recommended “testing of all going into care homes, and segregation whilst awaiting result”.
Hancock described it as “obviously a good positive step”.
However, the investigation said he later responded to an 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.”
In September 2020, during a severe backlog in testing, messages suggest an adviser to Hancock helped get a test sent to the home of Rees-Mogg, a senior Conservative.
The aide messaged 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”.
He added: “Jacob’s spad (special adviser) is aware and has helped line it all up, but you might want to text Jacob.”
Commenting on the claim, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Daisy Cooper, said: “This is yet more evidence that it’s one rule for Conservative ministers and another for everyone else. The Covid inquiry must look into reports Conservative ministers were able to get priority access to tests at a time of national shortage.”
As he battled to meet his own target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, the investigation shows Hancock texted his former boss Osborne to “call in a favour”.
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 front-page coverage.
Osborne responded: “Yes – of course – all you need to do tomorrow is give some exclusive words to the Standard and I’ll tell the team to splash it.”
The then health secretary later added: “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!”