The Former Health Secretary’s management of the pandemic is once again being called into question after a journalist leaked over 100,000 of his WhatsApp messages this week. Isabel Oakeshott defended handing over the trove of Matt Hancock’s texts to The Telegraph, telling BBC Radio 4 she was "acting in overwhelming national interest".
Hancock had shared these messages with the journalist whilst she served as a ghostwriter for his controversial memoir, Pandemic Diaries. Oakeshott then sold them to the newspaper, violating the terms of a non-disclosure agreement she had signed before collaborating on his book.
The leaked texts shed more light on the government’s handling of the pandemic during its peak. The Telegraph said in a tweet it is "the biggest leak of data involving the government since the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal, shedding new light on issues including care home deaths, lockdowns, testing, school closures, and face masks. We all deserve to know."
Despite this, the ex-Health Secretary has refuted the “distorted account”, claiming in a statement on Thursday that the conversations have been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda.”
Most widely criticised from the cache of messages has been Hancock’s rejection of expert public health advice available at the time. In April 2020, Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Witty advised that Covid-19 testing should be given to “all going into care homes.” Whilst Hancock responded that this was a “good positive step,” he later texted an aide saying it “just muddies the waters,” and subsequently introduced mandatory testing only for those entering care homes from hospitals.
Upwards of 45,000 people in nursing homes died of Coronavirus during the pandemic, all whilst Hancock claimed he was “putting a protective ring” around the vulnerable. In the wake of the leak, the MP has faced huge backlash from friends and families of care home residents.
Then-cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is also the subject of some leaked messages, as it is revealed that one of his children received a priority courier-delivered Covid test.
“Lab lost JRM’s child’s test, so we’ve got a courier going to their family home tonight, and courier will take it straight to the lab. Should have result tomorrow,” a text from Hancock to adviser Allan Nixon read in September 2020.
This came as a backlog of 145,000 other tests were still awaiting processing due to shortages, forcing many members of the public to remain in isolation and not go to work. Liberal Democrat politician Daisy Cooper criticised this in parliament this week, saying “it is yet more evidence that it’s one rule for Conservative ministers and another for everyone else.”
Responding on Wednesday Rees-Mogg accepted that the arrangement might be seen as "special treatment”, but insisted it was necessary due to his role as a cabinet minister at the time.
"I received special treatment, [not] because I requested it, but actually [because] it allowed a government minister to get back to work with a child who didn't have Covid in the first place," he said.
Other messages in the leak entail Hancock calling in a favour from ex-chancellor George Osborne to meet his daily testing target, Boris Johnson “going crackers” over testing, and Hancock and the Education Secretary saying teaching unions are “absolute arses” who “hate work”. A spokesperson for Hancock asserted that context and crucial information are being unfairly omitted, and what the messages actually show is “a lot of people working hard to save lives.”
The former Health Secretary has apologised to those whom the leaked messages impact, saying that “Isabel repeatedly reiterated the importance of trust throughout, and then broke that trust."
Oakeshott told BBC Radio 4 she did not leak the messages for fiscal benefit. She instead claimed to be releasing the texts because it would take “many years” before the “colossal whitewash” of a Covid inquiry comes to a close.
"Not one journalist worth their salt would sit on a cache of information in such an important matter," she continued. “We absolutely cannot wait any longer for answers.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer has since made demands for the inquiry to report by the end of the year.
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