Hancock wanted to ‘frighten the pants’ off public with new Covid strain, leaked messages suggest

Matt Hancock speaks during a virtual press conference on the Covid vaccination programme, inside 10 Downing Street, in February 2021. Credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham, Pool

Matt Hancock appears to have told aides he wanted to “frighten the pants off everyone” to ensure compliance with Covid restrictions, in leaked messages which reveal discussions over when to “deploy” details of a new strain. The latest set of WhatsApp exchanges, published in The Sunday Telegraph, show how Mr Hancock and others discussed how to use an announcement about the Kent variant of the virus to scare the public into changing their behaviour. The messages, among more than 100,000 messages passed to the Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, show that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in stopping the spread of the virus. The leak has already revealed Rishi Sunak and Mr Hancock complaining about Dominic Cummings’ “nightmare” tenure in Downing Street, as well as the then health secretary’s repeated concerns that the then chancellor’s signature Eat Out To Help Out initiative was contributing to the spread of Covid. The latest messages show the approach taken by Mr Hancock and others to government communication at various stages during the pandemic. ITV News has not seen the original messages.

In December 2020, the exchanges show concern that London Mayor Sadiq Khan could follow the example of Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who had clashed with the government over the decision to impose stringent lockdown restrictions on the region. Mr Hancock’s adviser said: “Rather than doing too much forward signalling, we can roll pitch with the new strain.” “We frighten the pants of everyone with the new strain,” the then health secretary responded. “But the complication with that Brexit is taking the top line,” he said, in an apparent reference to media coverage of the UK’s EU exit. “Yep that’s what will get proper behaviour change,” the adviser said. “When do we deploy the new variant,” Mr Hancock said. The conversation, on December 13, came amid concerns about the rapid spread of the virus in south-east England. Mr Hancock announced that a new Covid-19 variant had been identified in the UK on December 14. London and south-east England were to enter a new Tier 4 alert level, it was announced on December 19, when then prime minister Boris Johnson also cancelled a promised Christmas “bubbles” policy allowing families to meet.

People make their way past a government coronavirus Tier 4 sign saying 'Stay at Home' on the High street in Winchester in 2021. Credit: PA

The entirety of England entered the third national lockdown on January 6 2021. Messages from January 10 show Mr Hancock and the cabinet secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance. “More mask-wearing might be the only thing to consider," Mr Case wrote. “Effectively free and has a very visible impact? Wear masks in all settings outside home and in more workplaces? “Am not sure that got us much further, did it? Basically, we need to get compliance up.” Mr Hancock tells him, after a brief discussion on angling, that he “honestly wouldn’t move on any small things unless we move on a lot”.

Mr Case agrees: “I think that is exactly right. Small stuff looks ridiculous. Ramping up messaging – the fear/guilt factor vital. “I suspect London Nightingale coming into use will feel like a big public moment. Especially as I guess it will be full with a couple of days (based on current data).”

Simon Case was appointed as Civil Service head in 2020 after serving as permanent secretary in Number 10. Credit: PA

Ms Oakeshott was originally given the material by Mr Hancock while they were collaborating on his memoir of his time in government during the pandemic. He has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”. In a statement this week, Mr Hancock said that all the materials for his book have been made available to the official Covid-19 inquiry. Ms Oakeshott has said the disclosures are in the public interest. Some of the messages also offered an insight into Boris Johnson’s thinking at various stages of the pandemic. For instance in August 2020, he warned that government messaging was becoming “mangled”, referencing “private focus groups”. “Folks my private focus groups telling me our messaging now so mangled as to be totally incomprehensible. “We need big reset and simple themes pumped over the airwaves especially on social distancing and how many people you can have in your house etc,” he wrote. A spokesman for the former prime minister said: “It is not appropriate to comment on these leaks. “The public inquiry provides the right process for these issues to be examined.”

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