ITV News' Carl Dinnen reports on the latest batch of leaked messages from the former health secretary
New leaked messages between Matt Hancock and officials show the then health secretary scrambling to save his career after footage emerged of his embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo. They are among the latest set of WhatsApp correspondence to emerge from the leak of more than 100,000 messages by journalist Isabel Oakeshott to the Daily Telegraph.
The messages centre on the hours after Mr Hancock discovered that leaked footage, showing him breaching social distancing rules, would appear on the front page of the Sun in June 2021. He resigned as health secretary shortly afterwards.
The messages, published by the Telegraph, show Mr Hancock discussing the guidance in place at the time and deciding what his initial response to media questions should be.
ITV News has not seen the original messages. As he awaits publication, Mr Hancock asks a special adviser: “How bad are the pics?” Told it’s a “snog and heavy petting”, he replies: “How the f*** did anyone photograph that?” The messages also show the reaction of Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo to a video obtained by The Sun. “OMFG”, Ms Coladangelo said. Mr Hancock said: “Crikey. Not sure there’s much news value in that and I can’t say it’s very enjoyable viewing.”
In his diaries, worked on with Ms Oakeshott and published last year, Mr Hancock said that he resigned as health secretary after colleagues failed to defend him publicly. By his own account, he said that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had assured him he could carry on even though he and Ms Coladangelo had been pictured kissing in his office in breach of his own social-distancing guidelines. But after the story broke, Mr Hancock said he found himself “increasingly isolated” politically and was left with no choice but to quit. The messages show Mr Hancock and his advisers discussing among themselves and liaising with Number 10 about how to respond to the story, amid an unfolding political storm. They also reveal that he asked his former mentor and ex-chancellor George Osborne for advice, as he prepared to resign.
The leaked exchanges also indicate that Mr Hancock and Rishi Sunak had disagreements over the course of the pandemic on Covid restrictions and the Eat Out To Help Out scheme.
The state-backed scheme offered customers a 50% discount, up to £10, on meals and soft drinks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as businesses sought to recover from the pandemic.
The messages show Mr Hancock attempting to get the support of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case in challenging the stance of Mr Sunak and others over certain pandemic-era rules, with the top civil servant – who is required to be politically neutral – complaining about “pure Conservative ideology” on the part of one senior minister. They reveal that Mr Hancock had serious concerns about the flagship Treasury scheme designed to support restaurants, dubbing it the “eat out to help the virus get about”.
In further messages released by the Telegraph on Saturday, Mr Hancock and Mr Sunak appear to complain about Dominic Cummings' time in Downing Street.
Another set of leaked messages exchanged between Matt Hancock and his officials reveal that the former health secretary hoped to shock the public into following lockdown rules.
In messages sent to an advisor in December 2020 and leaked to the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Hancock discusses when to reveal details of the new variant in order to "frighten the pants off everyone".
Following the leaks, the information commissioner has warned that the widespread use of WhatsApp by ministers and officials in Whitehall poses risks for transparency. Writing in the Telegraph, John Edwards said there was nothing necessarily wrong with the use of WhatsApp but it did pose questions for current policies and procedures.
The head of the information rights body said the reporting “exposes how WhatsApp messages were used to discuss and decide key government business during the pandemic”. He added: “It also underlines the importance of maintaining a public record of these private transcripts for transparency, accountability and lesson learning in the future. “This is not about preventing the use of WhatsApp. New technologies bring new opportunities and these can play a crucial role in keeping us connected. “But the risk is that decision-making made via WhatsApp risks being lost from the public record if it is not properly recorded and stored.”
WhatsApp messages are covered under Freedom of Information laws but he admitted that in reality “much of this information rests on people’s personal phones, or within personal accounts, and that it is rarely properly documented and archived”.
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