Matt Hancock told aid workers he wanted to “take everyone’s pants off” over the Kent variant of Covid to ensure compliance with lockdown rules, leaked messages have revealed.
The latest WhatsApp exchanges show the then Health Secretary and others discussing how to use an announcement about the variant to get the public to change their behavior.
The messages, passed under 100,000 to the telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, Exhibitions Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital”.
They also reveal Mr Hancock’s repeated concerns that then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out signature initiative was helping to spread Covid.
And Mr Sunak and Mr Hancock are said to have complained about Dominic Cumming’s ‘nightmare’ tenure as Boris Johnson’s top adviser at No. 10.
The latest news shows that in December 2020 there were concerns that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, could follow the lead of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who had fallen out with the Government over the decision to impose tough lockdown restrictions .
Mr Hancock’s adviser said: “Rather than giving too many forward signals, we can roll pitch with the new strain.” The Health Secretary at the time countered: “We’re scaring everyone’s pants with the new strain.”
The December 13 call came amid concerns about the rapid spread of the virus in south-east England. On December 14, Mr Hancock announced that a new variant had been identified in the UK.
London and south-east England were set to enter a new Level 4 alert, announced on December 19, 19, when Mr Johnson also canceled a promised Christmas “bubble” policy allowing families to get together.
All of England entered the third national lockdown on January 6, 2021. News on January 10 shows Mr Hancock and the Cabinet Secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance.
Mr Hancock, after a brief discussion of fishing, tells him that he “honestly wouldn’t change small things unless we were going to change a lot”.
Mr Case agrees: “I think that’s spot on. Little things look ridiculous. Intensify messaging – the fear/guilt factor is crucial. I suspect the London Nightingale outing will feel like a big public moment. Especially since I think it will be full in a few days (based on current data).”
Meanwhile, Mr Sunak is under pressure to answer questions about whether Treasury Department officials ignored evidence his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme helped spread the virus in the summer of 2020.
On August 24, 2020, Mr Hancock told Mr Case he had “kept it out of the news” in a message in which he suggested the economic stimulus program had had a negative impact on infections.
He said: “We’ve had a lot of feedback on that [Eat Out to Help Out] causing problems… I kept it off the news but it’s serious. So please do not allow the commercial success of the program to lead to its extension.”
In December 2020, the then health minister described the program as “eating out to help the virus move”.
A Warwick University study found in October 2020 that the scheme may have been responsible for 8 to 17 per cent of Covid clusters in recent months, but the Government dismissed the ‘behind the envelope’ calculations.
Prof Jonathan Portes of King’s College London said: “At first glance it seems that way [the Treasury] purposely tried to hide what the evidence was about Eat Out to Help Out.”
Ms Oakeshott originally received the material from Mr Hancock as they were working on his recollections of his reign during the pandemic.
He has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” aimed at supporting an “anti-lockdown agenda” and argues that the selective release of news only provides a “partial, biased account”.
In a statement this week, Mr Hancock said all of the materials for his book have been made available to the official Covid-19 inquiry. Ms Oakeshott said the disclosures were in the public interest.