The 100 000 leaked WhatsApp messages sent during Matt Hancock’s time as England’s health secretary give an insight into the UK government’s operations at the height of the covid pandemic, reports Jacqui Wise
Where do the messages come from?
The cache of messages between government ministers, cabinet officials, aides, and advisers was passed to the Daily Telegraph by Isabel Oakeshott, a journalist who was given copies of the texts while collaborating with England’s former health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, on his book Pandemic Diaries. The BMJ, like other media outlets, has not seen or independently verified the messages. The Daily Telegraph is publishing numerous stories derived from the messages under the banner the Lockdown Files.1 Its choice of messages to include is likely to be selective, not least because Oakeshott has said she chose the newspaper because of its anti-lockdown stance.
What are the key revelations so far?
On care homes
The messages show that England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, told Hancock on 14 April 2020 that there should be “testing of all [people] going into care homes” and “segregation whilst awaiting result.” This was a day before the government published its action plan on managing covid-19 in adult social care settings.2 Hancock initially said the advice “is obviously a good positive step and we must put it into the doc.” However, a message later that day to one of his special advisers said, “I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters.” Testing was made mandatory for people entering care homes from hospital but not for those coming from the community. Guidance stating that tests should be carried out for everyone entering care homes was not introduced until 14 August 2020. Hancock has previously claimed he put a “protective ring around care homes,” but between April and August thousands of people in care homes in England died from covid-19.
A spokesman for Hancock said that the testing policy followed an operational meeting where it was advised that it was not possible to test everyone entering care homes. On 1 March Helen Whately, the social care minister, responded to an urgent question from Labour in the Commons, saying, “Selective snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and at times misleading insight.”
On school closures
In December 2020, as covid cases were rising rapidly, Hancock sought to have schools closed for most pupils, but England’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, disagreed, the messages seem to show. A WhatsApp exchange on 28 December 2020 between Hancock and an aide, Emma Dean, taking place at the same time as Hancock was in a video meeting with the prime minister, described Williamson as “going absolutely gangbusters” over the issue. When it appeared that Williamson had won the argument, Hancock said that “we must now fight a rear-guard action.” He contacted Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s chief of staff, to try to get schools to stay shut after the Christmas break and provided his private email address. On 5 January, a day after some younger children had returned to classes for a single day, schools were closed and did not reopen until 8 March.
On facemasks in schools
The Daily Telegraph said that masks were introduced in schools for the first time so as to avoid an argument with Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, over the issue. She had announced the compulsory wearing of masks in corridors and communal areas in Scottish secondary schools, and Johnson asked for advice on whether they were needed in England. The messages seem to show that Whitty was ambivalent. “No strong reason against in corridors etc, and no very strong reasons for. The downsides are in the classroom because of the potential to interfere with teaching. So agree not worth an argument.” Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 2 March, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, said, “It was political expediency that won the argument.” She said the messages showed that schools and children always seemed to be down the pecking order. “We got a series of pinball decisions often made on the hoof and often in contradictory ways.”
The Daily Telegraph highlighted some discussions about the merits of shielding that took place on 9 August 2020, a week after the government lifted national shielding guidance for the first time. Boris Johnson asked whether there was any merit offering over 65s a choice over whether to shield. “If you are over 65 your risk of dying from covid is probably as big as your risk of falling down stairs. And we don’t stop older people from using stairs.” Whitty replied, “Agree this is entirely reasonable at an individual level,” adding, “Outside a situation where the NHS risks being overwhelmed it has to be a personal choice.” Patrick Vallance, the UK chief scientific adviser, wrote, “In reality we haven’t found shielding easy or very effective first time round and I don’t think anyone else has either. It is a particular problem with multigenerational households. The challenge is how you could make all this work in practice if the disease is spreading widely amongst the younger population.” Despite these misgivings, shielding was reintroduced during subsequent national lockdowns.
Why has Oakeshott released the messages?
Oakeshott, Talk TV’s international editor, has been a vocal lockdown sceptic. Although she signed a nondisclosure agreement when writing the Pandemic Diaries she told the Today programme she had leaked the messages as it was in the “overwhelming national interest.” She would not say how much she has been paid by the Daily Telegraph but said, “Anyone who thinks I did this for money must be utterly insane.” She said, “This is about the millions of people who were adversely affected by the catastrophic decisions to lock down this country, often on the flimsiest of evidence for political reasons.”
In a statement Hancock said that what Oakeshott did was a “massive betrayal and breach of trust.” He said there was no public interest case for this huge breach, because all the material used for his Pandemic Diaries was given to the covid public inquiry headed by Heather Hallett. But Oakeshott said she released the messages to avoid a “colossal whitewash” and that the covid inquiry did not have any specific timeframe or deadline and “will drag on forever.”
What did government advisers say?
The messages released so far seem to shine a good light on Whitty and Vallance. In one message Hancock even writes, “I love Chris Whitty.” At times the advisers are patiently explaining the science of covid while at others they seem to be carrying out a maths tutorial. For example, Johnson said he had read in the Financial Times that the mortality rate for covid-19 had fallen to 0.04. “How can we possibly justify the continuing paralysis to control a disease that has a death rate of one in 2000,” he wrote on 26 August 2020. Whitty, Vallance, and the special adviser Dominic Cummings then all attempted to explain that this was the case fatality rate and that 0.04 as a probability meant 4%. The prime minister replied “Eh” and then sent another message reading “?”
What have we learnt about how government works?
The exchanges, amounting to 2.3 million words, show the extent of government decision making on WhatsApp. Messaging groups have names such as “Top Teams,” “covid-19 senior group,” and “crisis management”—this last one set up to deal with the fallout of Hancock’s relationship with his aide Gina Coladangelo.
Hancock has pointed out that the WhatsApp messages give just a snapshot of what was going on in government at that time and that there will also have been numerous emails, policy papers, and meetings. However, the sheer volume of messages reveal what at times seems to be casual decision making or policy made on the basis of gut feeling. Aides and ministers often discuss what they have read that day in the media or the latest polls. The messages also reveal exchanges that are often childish, unprofessional, and insulting. For example, Hancock described the teaching unions as a “bunch of absolute arses,” with Williamson responding, “I know they really do just hate work.”
Writing in the Guardian, Devi Sridhar, chair of global health at the University of Edinburgh, said, “The messages we’ve seen so far show that there was a huge gulf between what public health experts and scientific advisers were recommending and what the UK actually did—even as ministers claimed to be ‘following the science.’”3
She said that Hancock’s messages on testing “imply that he was more driven by publicity and what would make him look good—the phrase ‘muddies the waters’ seems to refer to the perception of a policy, rather than how it would work.”
Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care at Imperial College London, pointed out on Twitter, “Politicians and everyone else in professional roles need to be careful what they put in written messages such as emails and WhatsApp. I work on the basis that everything I write down may one day be made public, and aim to be polite and respectful in all my written communications.”4