Matt Hancock has been accused of rejecting expert advice to give Covid tests to residents from the community going into care homes in the early stages of the pandemic after a series of Whatsapp messages were leaked to a newspaper.
According to an investigation by the Daily Telegraph, chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the former health secretary in April 2020 that there should be testing for “all going into care homes”.
But the messages published by the newspaper appear to suggest Mr Hancock rejected the guidance and introduced mandatory testing for those coming from hospitals.
A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said: “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 trove of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages were leaked by journalist Isabel Oakeshott after she worked on Mr Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries memoir.
Among them include a series of exchanges between Mr Hancock and chancellor George Osborne, who was by then editor of the Evening Standard, who said: “No one thinks testing is going well”, in relation to the government’s mass-testing programme. In another exchange Mr Hancock wrote to him: “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!” while pushing for favourable 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.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said on Wednesday night: “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.
“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.
“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.
Mr Hancock was also said to be “considering all options” in response to the leak. A source close to him said Ms Oakeshott had broken a legal NDA, adding: “Her behaviour is outrageous.”
The failure by Boris Johnson’s government to heed multiple warnings on the vulnerability of the care sector has been reported on extensively in the past. Last April it emerged that Public Health England had advised the Government in March 2020 against allowing hospital patients who may have had Covid-19 who did not have symptoms to be transferred from hospitals to care homes – but this was overruled by ministers or officials.
The watering-down of the advice led to hundreds of patients being transferred to care homes, and barristers for bereaved families claim that 20,000 care home residents died during the early weeks of the pandemic as a result.