Matt Hancock told aides he wanted to “scare everyone” to ensure compliance with Covid-19 restrictions, according to the latest batch of leaked messages that discuss the details of a new strain of “deployment” .
WhatsApp exchanges suggested that the then health secretary and others discussed how to use the announcement about the Kent variant of the virus to scare the public into changing their behaviour.
Messages published in the Sunday Telegraph show Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in stopping the spread of the virus.
In December 2020, exchanges show concern that London Mayor Sadiq Khan may follow the example of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who clashed with the government over its decision to impose tighter lockdown restrictions on the area.
Hancock’s advisor said: “Instead of hinting too far ahead, we can get the pitch rolling with the new strain.”
The then Health Secretary replied, “We scare the pants off everyone with the new strain.”
“But the complexity with that Brexit is taking the top line,” he said in an apparent reference to media coverage of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
“Yes, that’s what would get the appropriate behavioral change,” said the advisor.
“When do we deploy the new version,” Hancock said.
The conversation, on 13 December 2020, took place 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 14 December.
Five days later it was announced that London and Southeast England were to enter a new Level 4 alert level, after the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson also canceled the Christmas “bubble” policy allowing families to meet.
The whole of England entered a third national lockdown on 6 January 2021.
In messages dated January 10, Hancock and the cabinet secretary appear to be discussing ways to ensure compliance.
Case wrote: “The only consideration may be to wear more masks.
“Effectively free and have a very obvious effect? Wear masks in all settings outside the home and in more workplaces?
“I’m not sure we got very far, did we? Basically, we need to get compliance.”
After a brief discussion on angling Hancock tells Case that he “honestly won’t go on any little thing until we’ve gone a long way”.
Case replied: “I think that’s absolutely correct. Small talk sounds ridiculous. Sending the message – fear/guilt is important.
“I suspect the London Nightingale [hospital] Coming into use will feel like a big public moment.
“Especially as I think it will be filled within a few days (based on current data).”
Journalist Isabel Oakeshott was originally given the material by Hancock while they were collaborating on her memoir.
He has condemned the leaks as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”.
In a statement this week, Hancock said all material for his book had been made available to the official COVID-19 investigation.
Oakeshott has said the disclosures are in the public interest.