Matt Hancock rejected advice to test care home residents for Covid, the leaked messages suggest. ITV News' political correspondent Romilly Weeks reports
Former health secretary Matt Hancock rejected advice to give coronavirus tests to all residents going into English care homes, an investigation based on a leaked trove of more than 100,000 WhatsApps alleges.
The MP denied the “distorted account”, with a spokesman claiming the messages leaked by journalist Isabel Oakeshott after she worked on his Pandemic Diaries memoir have been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
The Telegraph’s investigation claims Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the then health secretary in April 2020 there should be testing for “all going into care homes”.
But the messages suggest Mr Hancock rejected the guidance, telling an aide the move just “muddies the waters”, and introduced mandatory testing for those coming from hospitals.
Mr 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.
ITV News has not seen the messages.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to comment on the leak, referring to the messages as "piecemeal bits of information".
He told Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs that the official coronavirus inquiry is the “right way” to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said he is “considering all options” in response to the leak, with a source close to him telling the PA news agency: “She’s broken a legal NDA [non-disclosure agreement]. Her behaviour is outrageous.”
The spokesman said: “Having not been approached in advance by the Telegraph, we have reviewed the messages overnight.
“The Telegraph intentionally excluded reference to a meeting with the testing team from the WhatsApp.
"This is critical, because Matt was supportive of Chris Whitty’s advice, held a meeting on its deliverability, told it wasn’t deliverable, and insisted on testing all those who came from hospitals.
“The Telegraph have been informed that their headline is wrong, and Matt is considering all options available to him.
“This major error by Isabel Oakeshott and the Telegraph shows why the proper place for analysis like this is the Inquiry, not a partial, agenda-driven leak of confidential documents.”
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The politician, who recently sparked outrage by appearing on reality TV programme 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here', released a subsequent statement through his spokesman, saying the Telegraph story was "flat wrong".
It is claimed Mr Hancock "enthusiastically accepted" advice from Professor Whitty about care home testing and held an operational meeting about its deliverability, at which he was told "it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes".
The statement added: “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.”
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.
Mr Hancock told former chancellor George Osborne, then editor of the Evening Standard, “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!” as he pushed for favourable front-page coverage.
Ms 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”.
“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, Mr Hancock said Sir Chris had finished a review and recommended “testing of all going into care homes, and segregation whilst awaiting result”.
Mr 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.”
The spokesman for Mr Hancock said “the Telegraph story is wrong”, arguing that “instead of spinning and leaks we need the full, comprehensive inquiry”.
Watch PMQs and a subsequent debate on Matt Hancock's messages:
“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 spokesman said.
“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.”
He continued: “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.
“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.”
In September 2020, during a severe backlog in testing, messages suggest an adviser to Mr Hancock helped get a test sent to senior Conservative 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”.
He added: “Jacob’s spad (special adviser) is aware and has helped line it all up, but you might want to text Jacob.”
As he battled to meet his own target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, the investigation shows Mr Hancock texted his former boss Mr Osborne to “call in a favour”.
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 front page coverage.
Mr 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!”
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