This site is intended for UK healthcare professionals
Medscape UK Univadis Logo
Medscape UK Univadis Logo

PM Backs Official COVID Inquiry After Leak of Hancock WhatsApps

Rishi Sunak has defended the official coronavirus inquiry as the "right way" to scrutinise the handling of the pandemic after the extraordinary leak of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock's messages.

The Prime Minister urged people not to focus on "piecemeal bits of information" after a trove of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages were handed to the Daily Telegraph.

Mr Hancock was considering legal action while fighting claims he rejected advice to give coronavirus tests to all residents going into English care homes while serving as Health Secretary. His spokesman said a report claiming he rejected clinical advice on care home testing was "flat wrong" because he was told it was "not currently possible" to carry out the tests.

The aide alleged the messages leaked by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who was handed them by Mr Hancock while she worked on his "Pandemic Diaries" memoir, have been "spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda".

At Prime Minister's Questions, Sir Keir Starmer called for Mr Sunak to ensure the inquiry had all the support it needed "to report by the end of this year". "Families across the country will look at this, and the sight of politicians writing books portraying them as heroes will be an insulting and ghoulish spectacle for them."

Mr Sunak responded: "Rather than comment on piecemeal bits of information, I’m sure the honourable gentleman will agree with me the right way for these things to be looked at is the COVID inquiry.

"There is a proper process to these things, it is an independent inquiry, it has the resources it needs, it has the powers it needs and what we should do in this House is to let them get on and do their job."

Did Hancock Reject COVID-19 Testing Advice?

The Telegraph's investigation suggested England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the then-Health Secretary in April 2020 that there should be testing for "all going into care homes".

Mr Hancock described it as "obviously a good, positive step".

But the exchanges, from April 14 2020, suggested Mr Hancock ultimately rejected the guidance, telling an aide the move just "muddies the waters", and introduced mandatory testing only for those coming from hospitals rather than the community. Allies of Mr Hancock said that was because a lack of testing capacity meant it was not possible to check everyone entering a care home.

A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: "These stolen messages have been doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice on care home testing. This is flat wrong." They added that Mr Hancock "enthusiastically accepted" the advice from Sir Chris on April 14.

But "later that day he convened an operational meeting on delivering testing for care homes where he was advised it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes, which he also accepted".

"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 spokesman said.

"He went as far as was possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives.

"This story categorically shows that the right place for this analysis of what happened in the pandemic is in the inquiry."

The former Health Secretary was "considering all options" in response to the leak, with a source close to him telling the PA news agency: "She’s (Ms Oakeshott) broken a legal NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Her behaviour is outrageous."

Availability of COVID-19 Tests

Lord Bethell, a health minister during the pandemic, said the Government had been "desperately" trying to scale up testing at that point of the crisis but that, at the time, it was necessary to prioritise who was swabbed due to the available capacity.

"The reality was there was a very, very limited number of those tests," he told BBC Radio 4’s "Today" programme. People who were coming out of hospitals had the highest rates of transmission, therefore "it was sensible and right to prioritise those" first, he said.

He told the "Today" programme: "The formal decision-making is done through official paperwork and we don’t have that in front of us.

"That’s why this partial glimpse into the decision-making is so unfortunate, because it gives a misleading impression."

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.

The spokesman for Mr Hancock said: "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 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."

Did Ministers Have 'Priority Access to Tests at a Time of National Shortage'?

Other suggestions in the files are that in September 2020, during a severe backlog in testing, an adviser to Mr Hancock helped get a test sent to senior Conservative Jacob 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."

Commenting on the claim, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: "The Covid inquiry must look into reports Conservative ministers were able to get priority access to tests at a time of national shortage."

As he battled to meet his own target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, the investigation showed Mr Hancock texted his former boss George Osborne, the ex-chancellor who was then editing the Evening Standard, to "call in a favour". Mr Hancock said he had thousands of spare testing slots which was "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!"

Labour has been granted an urgent question in the Commons over care home testing.

This article contains information from PA Media