Matt Hancock rejected Covid testing advice, leaked messages suggest

More than 100,000 private WhatsApp messages involving Matt Hancock at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic have been leaked, including claims he dismissed expert advice to test anyone entering a care home for coronavirus at the start of the pandemic.

The former health secretary has issued a strong denial to the investigation by the Daily Telegraph, saying the private messages were “stolen” and the interpretation of the messages was “categorically untrue”.

An investigation by the Telegraph claims England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, told Hancock in April 2020 that “all [people] going into care homes” should be tested and recommended “segregation whilst awaiting result”.

The former health minister Lord Bethell, who worked closely with Hancock, urged him now to release all the of messages in order to show the full picture. Bethell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I certainly think Matt should just publish his WhatsApps and get them out there.” He added that the “flaw in this whole debate” was that “we only have a few scrappy, gossipy WhatsApps”.

According to leaked messages published by the Telegraph, Hancock rejected the guidance, telling an aide the move “muddies the waters”. Instead, he introduced mandatory testing for those leaving hospital.

Other claims from the messages include:

  • Hancock asking the then Evening Standard editor George Osborne, a former boss, to put testing on the front page of the newspaper in order to hit his targets.

  • Arrangements for a Covid test to be sent to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s daughter during a shortage.

  • Warnings from the social care minister Helen Whately that restrictions on visitors to care homes are “inhumane”.

Hancock has said in response that the Telegraph used “stolen messages [that] have been doctored to create a false story” and described the newspaper’s investigation as a “distorted account”.

He is understood to have handed all his messages to the journalist Isabel Oakeshott who ghostwrote a diary of his pandemic experiences. Sources close to Hancock said she had broken a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

He said the revelation excluded a key message from the adviser Allan Nixon where he said he had not been in the meeting during which the advice was given.

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Hancock is said to be “considering all options” in response to the leak of more than 100,000 WhatsApps that Oakeshott received while working on his Pandemic Diaries memoir. “She’s broken a legal NDA. Her behaviour is outrageous,” a source close to the former health secretary said.

The claims emerged after Oakeshott gave messages to the Telegraph that Hancock exchanged with the then prime minister Boris Johnson, the then chancellor Rishi Sunak, and many other members of Johnson’s cabinet.

Hancock’s spokesperson said Oakeshott had now spun the messages to “fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.

Oakeshott said she leaked the messages because it would take “many years” before the end of the official Covid inquiry, which she claimed could be a “colossal whitewash”.

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Further messages reveal Hancock was concerned that expanding care home testing could “get in the way” of the 100,000 daily Covid testing target he was desperate to hit.

In Hancock’s WhatsApp exchange with Whitty, the health secretary reportedly described the chief medical officer’s advice as “obviously a good positive step”, but 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.”

Months later, in July 2020, the Telegraph claims Hancock’s eagerness to meet his self-set Covid testing targets of 100,000 a day led to a message to his former boss, George Osborne, the then editor of the Evening Standard newspaper, to “call in a favour”.

Hancock allegedly said he had 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.” Hancock later added: “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!”

Osborne has been approached for comment.

When there was a backlog in testing, an adviser to Hancock reportedly helped to send a Covid test to the home of Rees-Mogg, the then leader of the Commons, in September 2020, leaked messages published in the newspaper claim. The aide messaged Hancock to say the lab had “lost” the original test for one of Rees-Mogg’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.”

Rees-Mogg has been approached for comment.

A spokesperson for Hancock said: “These stolen messages have been doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice on care home testing. This is flat wrong. On 14 April Matt received a response to his request for advice from the chief medical officer that testing was needed for people going into care homes, which he enthusiastically accepted.

“Later that day he convened an operational meeting on delivering testing for care homes where he was advised it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes, which he also accepted. 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.

“Nixon says, ‘I wasn’t in testing mtg’, which changes the context of the exchange depicted in the article. It demonstrates there was a meeting at which advice on deliverability was given. By omitting this, the messages imply Matt simply overruled clinical advice. That is categorically untrue. He went as far as was possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives. This story categorically shows that the right place for this analysis of what happened in the pandemic is in the inquiry.”

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