Keir Starmer has demanded the Covid-19 inquiry release its findings by the end of the year as he attacked Matt Hancock over a leaked cache of messages sent during the pandemic.
The former Health Secretary is under fire following allegations that he rejected advice from chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty to test all residents going into England’s care homes. Hancock has furiously refuted the claims, which first emerged in the Telegraph after the newspaper obtained more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages between the MP, his fellow ministers and officials.
Speaking at PMQs on Wednesday (1 March), the Labour Party leader accused Hancock of “portraying himself as a hero” in his new book, ‘The Pandemic Diaries‘, and blasted the leaked messages as an “insulting and ghoulish spectacle” for families across the country who lost loved ones to Covid-19.
Although the Holborn and St Pancras MP admitted there were “too many messages and too many unknowns” to know the “truth just yet”, he argued that the country “deserves better” - and used his moment in the House of Commons to demand the report on the Covid-19 inquiry is delivered by the end of 2023.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak responded by insisting that the official inquiry is the “right way” to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic, rather than relying on “piecemeal bits of information” such as the leaked messages.
He continued: “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.”
Debate on Hancock continued after PMQs, with health minister Helen Whately facing an urgent question from shadow social care minister Liz Kendall. The Labour MP asked: “Can the minister now confirm that the chief medical officer first advised the government to test all residents going into care homes in early April 2020? Can she explain why the former health secretary rejected this advice and failed to introduce community testing until 14 August, a staggering four months later?”
Whatley acknowledged that the “situation in care homes was extremely difficult” but explained that there were limited tests available, meaning “tough decisions about prioritisation had to be made” over testing. She insisted: “The importance of testing was never in doubt and there was full agreement on that in every part of government.”
Referring directly to the Telegraph’s recent article, the Tory MP said that leaked messages may provide a “limited and at times misleading insight” into what happened. She went on to quote from an email sent after the exchanges over WhatsApp, which said everyone going into care home should be tested “as capacity allows”.
In the same exchange, Conservative former minister Peter Bone came to the defence of the government - claiming that “it seems the opposition wants to rewrite history”. He said: “The fact is at the time people didn’t know what was right or what was wrong. The secretary of state listened to a whole lot of advice and then had to make a decision.”
He added that it should be up to the Covid-19 inquiry to “deal with all these matters properly,” but did press the health minister on whether the report could be brought forward. Whatley responded that she believes the timing of the inquiry is “not something which is in control of ministers.”
Downing Street has also been facing questions over the scandal, with a spokesperson telling reporters that discussing government policy over WhatsApp is “part and parcel of modern government.”
Asked if Sunak uses the messaging app for government business, the Prime Minister’s press secretary said: “A range of ways in which government officials and others communicate are used, that’s not unusual, that’s the same for the Prime Minister. Ministers are able to discuss government businesses over text messages or WhatsApp, that’s entirely within the rules. The requirement is that substantive decisions are communicated to the Cabinet Office.”
What did Hancock’s leaked messages reveal?
According to the messages, Whitty told Hancock in April 2020 there should be testing for “all going into care homes”. Hancock said the advice represented a “good positive step” and that “we must put into the doc”, to which an aide responded that he had sent the request “to action”.
But the exchanges from 14 April suggest Hancock ultimately rejected the guidance, saying to an aide: “Tell me if I’m wrong but I would rather leave [care home testing] out and just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital. I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters.”
Other WhatsApp messages show that in September 2020, when there was a backlog in testing, officials couriered Jacob Rees-Mogg a Covid test to his home for one of his children. An aide messaged 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.”
The WhatsApp messages also show Hancock texted his ex-boss and former chancellor George Osborne, who was then editor of the Evening Standard, to “call in a favour”. Hancock, who was battling to meet his own target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, told Osborne he had thousands of spare testing slots which is “obvs good news about spread of virus” but “hard for my target”.
He asked for front-page coverage, to which 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.” Hancock later added: “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!”
Hancock has denied the “distorted account”, and his spokesperson alleged the leaked messages had been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
The spokesperson also claimed that the Telegraph had “intentionally excluded reference to a meeting with the testing team from the Whatsapp”, which it claims 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 former Health Minister is also said to be “considering all options” in terms of his response to Isabel Oakeshott, who leaked the messages after working with Hancock on his book, ‘The Pandemic Diaries’. A source close to the MP told PA: “She’s broken a legal NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Her behaviour is outrageous.”
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 inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic, which she claimed could be a “colossal whitewash”.