Matt Hancock told aides in December 2020 that he wanted to “deploy” a new Covid variant to “frighten the pants off” the public and ensure they complied with lockdown regulations.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case said in another message that the “fear/guilt factor” was a “vital” component in “ramping up the messaging” during the third national lockdown in early 2021.
The latest tranche of messages leaked by The Telegraph date from the emergence of the Alpha variant, also dubbed the Kent variant, which caused a surge of cases in December 2020.
Exchanges also revealed that ministers wanted to remove Sir Jeremy Farrar, who was a professor of tropical diseases at Oxford University at the time, from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after he was critical of the government, with Mr Hancock calling him a “complete loudmouth”.
He said Sir Jeremy, who is now chief scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), was “totally offside” after he criticised the NHS Test and Trace programme and asked advisers: “Can we fire him?”.
Mr Hancock also asked Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser and chairman of Sage whether Sir Jeremy brought “any value” to the committee as he had “never once heard him say anything useful at all”.
In one message, shared with Mr Hancock, Sir Jeremy raised doubts about the accuracy of antibody tests used to identify Covid infections.
“They should not be believed. I have seen no data that shows any currently available rapid test would be useful or informative. Some are frankly dangerous,” Sir Jeremy wrote.
Lord James Bethell, a health minister at the time, told Mr Hancock that the message showed Sir Jeremy was “being a total spanner in the works” and that he needed “management”.
Sir Jeremy was also critical of Mr Hancock in his book Spike: The Virus vs. The People, published in July 2021, in which he said the former health secretary “shoulders a responsibility for the PPE shortages and testing fiasco, among other failings, that contributed to the dreadful epidemics in care homes and hospitals”.
Speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg this morning, Cabinet minister Chris Heaton-Harris insisted the Government had not set out to “scare” people during the pandemic.
He said: “The government’s strategy was to try and protect the British public as best it possibly could, to try and protect the British economy as best it possibly could, which is why you saw Chris Whitty out on press conferences and doing other things.”
Mr Heaton-Harris warned against relying on the messages which were sent at a time when information about Covid-19 was still unclear and vaccines hadn’t been distributed.
He said: “It really is a partial account of what was going on and kind of almost a view into the psyche of Matt Hancock rather than into the actual decision-making.”
“Today’s revelations were around the time when there were no vaccines, there was limited testing. I think you got to put it in the time context as well as everything else, which is why it’s important to wait for the inquiry.”
Officials apparently discussed introducing a comms strategy that “ramped up fear” over Covid-19 infection rates.
More than 10,000 WhatsApp messages were leaked to the Telegraph by TalkTV journalist Isabel Oakeshott.
Mr Hancock has repeatedly criticised the reports as a “partial, biased account to suit an anti-lockdown agenda.”
“There is absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach. All the materials for the book have already been made available to the Inquiry, which is the right, and only, place for everything to be considered properly and the right lessons to be learned,” he said in a statement.
Ms Oakeshott has been vocal in her disapproval of lockdown measures, having previously said that the measures were a “catastrophe”.
On Friday, Ms Oakeshott walked out of an interview with Times Radio‘s Cathy Newman after she asked why she chose to leak the messages to journalists at the right-wing newspaper, which has often been sceptical of lockdowns in its coverage, given she is employed on a reportedly lucrative contract by TalkTV, which is owned by News UK, publisher of The Times and The Sun.
The journalist said that she “refused” to answer the questions and that “people are much more interested in what the investigation reveals.”