Cabinet Secretary Simon Case branded Boris Johnson a ‘nationally distrusted figure’ in a leaked WhatsApp message to ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
The latest revelation from the Lockdown Files - 100,000 messages that have been leaked to the Telegraph by controversial political commentator Isabel Oakeshott (but have not been verified by NationalWorld) - shows the UK’s top civil servant suggesting the then-Prime Minister was a liability when it came to Covid testing and isolation measures.
Earlier on Sunday (5 March), a separate Telegraph report on the leaked messages revealed Case had told Hancock in January 2021 that the “fear/guilt factor” was key to improving compliance with Covid rules. They also showed Boris Johnson railing against people who weren’t socially distancing - despite the PM himself having failed to follow his own guidelines just a month earlier when he celebrated his birthday in Downing Street.
Other revelations from the leaked messages have shown Hancock’s reaction to his affair with aide Gina Coladangelo being made public by The Sun, and the former Cabinet Minister’s calls for the police to get tougher when enforcing lockdown rules. Oakeshott, who came into possession of the WhatsApps while working with Hancock on the ‘Pandemic Diaries’ argues the leaks are in the public interest. But Matt Hancock has said they are a “betrayal” and have been used to promote Oakeshott’s lockdown sceptic views.
So, what does the latest leak tell us about the government’s response to the Covid pandemic? Here’s what you need to know.
What did Simon Case say about Boris Johnson?
In a leak that could prove to be damaging to Simon Case’s already fragile position as the UK’s top civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary apparently has been shown doubting then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suitability for delivering key Covid messaging.
In an October 2020 exchange with Matt Hancock on social messaging app WhatsApp, he suggests Johnson would not be trusted by the British public if he tried to deliver information about testing and isolation requirements. The extraordinary conversation came little more than a month after Case was appointed to his role.
The published exchange, which appears to be about UK testing capability, starts with Hancock writing: “I am going to get stuck in and drive this roll out. The PM is completely right on this. Delegate delegate delegate.”
Mr Case agrees: “My concern is that we can figure out how to test, what we don’t know how to do is get people to isolate. We are losing this war because of behaviour – this is the thing we have to turn around (which probably also relies on people hearing about isolation from trusted local figures, not nationally distrusted figures like the PM, sadly).”
The health secretary then responds: “sure – but even with a massive rocket up them the lorries won’t roll until late next week – so we can fix the new isolation rules between now and then”.
A spokesperson for Boris Johnson has said: “It is not appropriate to comment on these leaks. The public inquiry provides the right process for these issues to be examined.”
It is not the first time Simon Case has found himself facing trouble in his two-and-a-half years as head of the civil service. He was close to the centre of the Partygate row, with many questioning how he did not get fined or resign after the scale of the boozy events that took place under his watch was revealed.
Case was also at the centre of the Boris Johnson Downing Street flat refurbishment row and has been drawn into several other recent contentious episodes, including stories about Boris Johnson’s controversial loan facility, the Nadhim Zahawi tax scandal, and the ongoing bullying allegations probe against Dominic Raab.
What has government said about Hancock WhatsApp messages?
Speaking to BBC political programme Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg on 5 March, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris backed up Matt Hancock’s line that the messages which have been leaked do not give a full picture of what happened in Downing Street between 2020 and 2021.
“It really is a partial account of what was going on and almost a view into the psyche of Matt Hancock rather than into the actual decision-making,” the Cabinet Minister said.
He also attempted to draw a line under the gallows humour and stark admissions within some of the messages, suggesting they showed politicians “being human beings”. Heaton-Harris insisted the government’s strategy was not to “frighten the pants off everyone”, as Hancock wrote in one exchange.
“I think the Government strategy was to try and protect the British public as best it possibly could… and to try and give as much information as it possibly could at the right times.”
While the leaked messages date back to a time before Rishi Sunak was Prime Minister, the government appears to be concerned that they could tarnish the current PM’s image given he held a senior government role at the time - he was Boris Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer - and has been directly implicated in some of the leaks.
For example, Hancock’s comments that Sunak’s flagship ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme had become “Eat Out to help the virus get about” while revealing he had sought to quash reports about the hospitality support scheme driving up Covid infections, could be damaging to the PM. The Guardian has already reported that there are calls for an inquiry into what the Treasury knew and when about infections associated with the scheme.