You are currently browsing the daily archive for March 1, 2023.

Tuesday, February 28, was a busy news day in the UK.

As it is March 1, may I wish the Welsh a happy St David’s Day:

The Telegraph‘s Lockdown Files, starring Matt Hancock

As King Charles would say, ‘Dear, oh dear’.

At the end of 2022, I wrote a seven-part series on Matt Hancock, our former Health Secretary, who, thankfully, is standing down at the next general election:

Last night, The Telegraph posted its initial entries of a new exposé on his handling of the pandemic: The Lockdown Files.

Regular readers of mine probably won’t learn too much that’s new, however, the bulk of the public probably will.

That said, a few articles stood out for me, thus far.

The first is Isabel Oakeshott’s ‘Why I had to make Matt Hancock’s Covid WhatsApps public’. She co-authored Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries, published late last year:

There’s no secret about how I came to be in possession of this communications treasure trove. The common thread is Matt Hancock, the former health secretary.

Throughout the pandemic, he used the messaging service WhatsApp to communicate with colleagues practically every minute of every day. Following his resignation in June 2021, he downloaded the records from his phone and shared them with various people, including me. I was helping him to write his book about the crisis, and we drew heavily from the material to reconstruct his day-by-day account. Suffice to say there was plenty of important material left over.

Precisely what needed to be done as the virus began its deadly rampage at the beginning of 2020, and how the response should have evolved as the nature of the threat was better understood, is a debate that has only intensified with the passage of time. While most people can forgive early mistakes by politicians and policymakers, bitter divisions remain over whether some of the measures that caused the most lasting hurt and damage – and the unprecedented assault on civil liberties – were ever justified. We need urgent answers.

Oakeshott tells us that other European nations either have completed their coronavirus inquiries or they are well underway, whilst the UK’s is only just starting:

Sweden wrapped up its investigation a year ago. The verdict, delivered in a neat 800-page report, was that avoiding mandatory lockdowns – an approach that made Sweden a global outlier – ultimately worked out quite well. After an early wobble over spiralling infection rates, Swedish ministers doubled down. They were rewarded with one of the lowest levels of excess mortality in Europe.

The French didn’t hang around with their public inquiry either. It began in July 2020, quickly involving police and prosecutors. In Oct 2020, officers raided the homes of senior government and health officials, presumably searching for sensitive documents. Among the properties targeted were those of Olivier Veran, the then health minister, and the director of France’s national health agency. It might seem extreme, but at least it shows they mean business. In Italy, the early epicentre of the outbreak in Europe, the formal inquiry has also made considerable progress.

As for the UK? It took the best part of 18 months just to agree terms of reference.

Announced in May 2021, our public inquiry – which has already cost up to £85 millionhas yet to begin formal hearings. Alarmingly, it does not appear to have any specific timeframe or deadline.

We all know what this means – it will drag on forever. After all, the investigation into Bloody Sunday took 10 years and was nowhere near as daunting a task

The sheer volume of this material and the complexity of cross-referencing messages between individuals and groups with what was being said elsewhere in government and indeed in public at the time makes extracting the most pertinent information a gargantuan mission. Who knows whether everything that is demonstrably in the public interest will end up where it should – in the public domain?

Hence the Telegraph investigation – because every single person in this country was affected by the pandemic and many are still suffering as a result. We were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices and generally did so more than willingly, to protect ourselves and each other. Doubtless lives were saved, but at a terrible price. The post-mortem is now urgent.

In March, Baroness Hallett, who presided over the inquests into the victims of the 7/7 terror attacks, will finally begin hearing evidence from the first set of witnesses.

Fraser Nelson, who also edits The Spectator, agrees on the urgency of the facts to be brought to light in ‘Stripping away the Covid secrecy offers a unique insight into the health crisis of our time’:

Over the next few days, the Lockdown Files will show how much political concerns shaped policy – with “the science” used, all too often, as verbal dressing. If you suddenly find out that people don’t need to self-isolate for as long as you once thought, what do you do? Apologise, and let them away earlier? Or delay sharing the advice to avoid embarrassment? The closed-loop decision-making process, the confidence that no one might ever know, encouraged all kinds of political misbehaviour

And yes, there will be a Covid inquiry, but it seems to be moving at the same pace as the Bloody Sunday inquiry and may serve as a device to obscure rather than uncover the truth, rather than disclose it.

That’s why the Lockdown Files matter. We can see, with a degree of transparency never before offered to journalists or historians, how some crucial decisions were made. This transparency can, right away, lead to reflection as to whether we still have a system that is fit for purpose when (and it will be when) the next pathogen is identified and the next panic starts.

The historian Andrew Roberts told me recently about the problem caused by the death of diaries: historians rely on them, yet no prime minister since Macmillan has kept daily notes. So how are we to learn from the steps and missteps of the recent past if it’s all lost to memory? The difference, Roberts said, would be WhatsApp messages – the forum now for so much of government discussion

That moment has now arrived: 2.3 million words from the messages of those who decided the fate of millions at a time when they probably felt they’d never have to answer to anyone. No one really thought that they were in the process of building the most comprehensive real-time glimpse of government documentation that has ever been made public in a Western democracy. Similar conversations will have happened the world over, but only in Britain do we have a chance to see what those conversations were

Those whose children were ordered out of school or told to wear a mask, those banned from visiting or mourning dying relatives, those whose self-isolation period was extended not for public health reasons but to save political blushes: they all deserve answers. The Lockdown Files should provide them.

A third is ‘Matt Hancock rejected Covid testing for care homes advice, WhatsApp messages reveal’, in which we learn (purple emphases mine):

The Telegraph has obtained more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages sent between the then health secretary and other ministers and officials at the height of the pandemic.

The messages comprise 2.3million words – three times as many words as the King James Bible contains.

The communications span the years of the pandemic and reveal discussions between the then health secretary and those at the heart of the decision-making process, including the then prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Other conversations involve Sir Chris, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, its chief scientific adviser.

The messaging groups have names such as “Top Teams”, “Covid 19 senior group” and “crisis management” – the name of a group created to deal with the fallout from Mr Hancock’s relationship with his aide, Gina Coladangelo.

Over the coming days, the Telegraph will reveal the messages, which lay bare the extent to which groupthink among aides and ministers affected pandemic decisions.

The messages also reveal the often casual approach that ministers took to making major decisions, including the call to close classrooms, introduce face masks in schools and provide testing in care homes.

With regard to care homes, Hancock rejected Chris Whitty’s advice on testing Covid-stricken care home residents before they returned from hospital:

Matt Hancock rejected the Chief Medical Officer’s advice to test for Covid all residents going into English care homes, leaked messages seen by The Telegraph reveal.

Prof Sir Chris Whitty told the then health secretary early in April 2020, about a month into the pandemic, that there should be testing for “all going into care homes”. But Mr Hancock did not follow that guidance, telling his advisers that it “muddies the waters”.

Instead, he introduced guidance that made testing mandatory for those entering care homes from hospital, but not for those coming from the community. Prior to the guidance, care homes had been told that negative tests were not required even for hospital patients. The guidance stating that those coming in from the community should be tested was eventually introduced on Aug 14.

Between April 17 and August 13, 2020, a total of 17,678 people died of Covid in care homes in England.

Who could forget Hancock’s declarations that he had thrown a ‘protective ring’ around care homes? This video is from May 15, 2020:

Camilla Tominey’s article, ‘Far from a “protective ring”, WhatsApp messages show care homes were cast adrift’ says:

It was during a Downing Street press conference on May 15 2020 when Matt Hancock first claimed to have thrown “a protective ring” around care homes.

Although the former health secretary appeared on the Andrew Marr show in June 2021 insisting he had not uttered the phrase until “much later”, he in fact used that form of words on at least three occasions to describe the action taken during the first wave of the pandemic.

On May 15 2020, Mr Hancock said: “Right from the start, it’s been clear that this horrible virus affects older people most. So right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”

Then, on May 18 2020, when questioned on this wording, Mr Hancock told the House of Commons: “We absolutely did throw a protective ring around social care, not least with the £3.2 billion worth of funding we put in right at the start, topped up with £600 million worth of funding on Friday.”

He used the phrase again, a day later, telling MPs: “I am glad that we have been able to protect the majority of homes, and we will keep working to strengthen the protective ring that we have cast around all our care homes”

The health secretary insisted he was following the science, but this appeared to be a political decision. He would more than a year later concede to the health and social care committee on June 10 2021: “The strongest route of the virus into care homes, unfortunately, is community transmission.”

The last-minute change of mind is all the more puzzling since the April 15 guidance was released to replace a disastrous diktat from April 2, which stated that infected patients could be discharged into care homes without a test.

The widely criticised policy was blamed for care homes accounting for roughly half of all excess deaths (25,374) between March 7 and Sept 18 last year, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), as coronavirus ripped through facilities caring for 400,000 residents in England.

Far from feeling a “protective ring” had been thrown around them, private care providers found themselves having to deal with infected residents without sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), which at that point was largely being stockpiled for the NHS

Even when the vaccinations were finally rolled out in Jan 2021, just one in 10 residents and 14 per cent of staff were initially injected – despite Boris Johnson’s insistence that they would be “first in line” for a jab.

Camilla Tominey’s father, a physician, owned a care home at that time:

Summing up the mood, my father Dr Damian Tominey, a former GP and care home owner, wrote in The Telegraph in Sept 2020: “The Government should have been better prepared for the Covid-19 crisis, and its shambolic response to the pandemic has compromised one of the most vulnerable groups in our society – the elderly.

Six months into the pandemic, he described the testing of staff and residents as an “unresolved fiasco” – pointing out that they had never received results back within 24 hours as Mr Johnson and Mr Hancock had promised, with the delays resulting in asymptomatic staff and residents unwittingly infected others.

He went on to describe the reams of “buck-passing” paperwork that kept on being sent to care homes from the county council and associated bodies – whilst elderly and vulnerable residents were denied face-to-face appointments with their GP, even when they tested negative.

“I have no doubt that if infections run rampant through care homes again, these same agencies will blame us because they have given us copious but often useless advice in the absence of a robust testing system,” he argued …

Sadly, the water on care homes is not muddy but crystal clear – those who most needed a ring of protection largely found themselves cast adrift.

Another article, ‘The leaked WhatsApp messages that expose how Britain’s elderly were failed on Covid’, has a selection of exchanges between Hancock and then-Social Care Minister Helen Whately.

The Spectator‘s Steerpike chose four highlights from The Lockdown Files and added a fifth, that Hancock is allegedly ‘contemplating legal action’. An excerpt follows, emphases in bold theirs:

How Hancock met his 100,000 tests a day target

We always suspected Hancock achieved his headline 100,000 tests a day through some statistical jiggery pokery. And now we know how: the target was hit by counting tens of thousands that were despatched but which might never be processed. Hancock also expressed fears that testing in care homes could ‘get in the way’ of his target.

Hancock sought to guarantee favourable press coverage

To keep up political momentum, Hancock got in touch with an old friend and former boss – George Osborne, the editor of the Evening Standard at the time. He said he could ‘really do with a testing splash’ to help meet his famous 100,000-tests-a-day target, according to the messages. ‘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’, Osborne replied. One for the journalism text books? 

The WhatsApps also reveal Osborne’s dry style of texts, telling Hancock bluntly that ‘no one thinks testing is going well, Matt’ at one point.

Hancock is now contemplating legal action

A bullish 1 a.m. statement was released by Hancock’s spokesman. ‘Matt is considering all options available to him’ they declared ominously. Team Hancock is accusing the Telegraph of ‘a partial, agenda-driven leak of confidential documents’ and says the proper place to examine all this is the official Covid inquiry. 

Well they can hardly not discuss them now

Politico‘s March 1 Playbook entry says that The Lockdown Files set Westminster alight at 11 p.m. last night. As I write this afternoon, lightweight Helen Whately, now Health and Social Care Minister, is answering an Urgent Question in Parliament from Labour about The Telegraph‘s revelations. Not surprisingly, Conservative MPs are closing ranks, saying that the proper place for the information is at the coronavirus inquiry.

Their article also says (bold in the original):

Pushing back hard: Hancock’s team was last night also threatening legal action and accusing Oakeshott of breaching the terms of a non-disclosure agreement. A spokesperson for Hancock told Playbook at 1.17 a.m.: “Having not been approached in advance by the Telegraph, we have reviewed the messages overnight. 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 Telegraph have been informed that their headline is wrong, and Matt is considering all options available to him.” Team Hancock is accusing the Telegraph of “a partial, agenda-driven leak of confidential documents” and says the proper place to examine all this is the official COVID inquiry

There’s more to come: In the coming days, the Tel promises to reveal “how children’s education was sacrificed” to avoid political rows, how isolation rules “that brought the economy to its knees could have been lifted sooner” and how ministers “sought to frighten the public” to get people to follow lockdown rules — none of which is going to dampen claims that the paper is pursuing an agenda. In its leader, the paper argues it is exposing a structural problem with top-level government decision-making.

In closing, Whately has just told Labour MP Emma Hardy that there is nothing she can do to get the public inquiry to move more quickly.

No surprise there.

Anyone who has a tip-off for The Lockdown Files can fill in The Telegraph‘s form here or here.


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