Leaked WhatsApp messages have revealed that Matt Hancock the former UK Health Secretary, and his aides discussed ways to “frighten the pants off everyone” to ensure compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.
The messages, obtained by journalist Isabel Oakeshott and published in The Sunday Telegraph, show discussions around the deployment of details regarding the new COVID-19 strain that emerged in Kent, England.
The leaked messages reveal that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in stopping the spread of the virus.
The messages also show the approach taken by Hancock and others to government communication at various stages during the pandemic. For example, in December 2020, the exchanges show concern that London Mayor Sadiq Khan could follow the example of Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who clashed with the government over the decision to impose stringent lockdown restrictions on the region.
Hancock’s adviser suggested that “we can roll with the new strain” instead of providing too much forward signalling. Hancock responded, “We frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain.”
The conversation, which took place on December 13, came amid concerns about the rapid spread of the virus in south-east England. Hancock announced that a new COVID-19 variant had been identified in the UK on December 14.
London and south-east England were to enter a new Tier 4 alert level, announced on December 19, when then Prime Minister Boris Johnson also cancelled a promised Christmas “bubbles” policy allowing families to meet. The entirety of England entered the third national lockdown on January 6, 2021.
Messages from January 10 show Hancock and the Cabinet Secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance. Case suggests that “the fear/guilt factor [is] vital” and that the London Nightingale Hospital coming into use will feel like a “big public moment.”
Oakeshott obtained the material while collaborating with Hancock on his memoir of his time in government during the pandemic. He has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda,” but Oakeshott has said the disclosures are in the public interest. The leak has also revealed Rishi Sunak and Hancock complaining about Dominic Cummings’ tenure in Downing Street, as well as the former Health Secretary’s concerns that the Eat Out to Help Out initiative was contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
Some of the messages also offered an insight into Boris Johnson’s thinking at various stages of the pandemic. For example, in August 2020, he warned that government messaging was becoming “mangled,” referencing “private focus groups.” A spokesman for the former prime minister said that “the public inquiry provides the right process for these issues to be examined.”