What was in Matt Hancock’s missing messages?

Matt Hancock appears on BBC TV
Matt Hancock appears on BBC TV

On the afternoon of March 13, 2020, Dominic Cummings invited five of the most powerful figures of the pandemic to join a new WhatsApp group. Called “CSA-CMO-Matt-PM-Dom,” it comprised the then chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance; the chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, the then health secretary Matt Hancock; Boris Johnson, and Cummings himself.

When the messages they exchanged about lockdown decisions were shared with me 18 months later as part of a book writing project, there was a curious quirk. Save for the initial record of the group being created, there was nothing to see for the whole first month. In April 2020, with the nation in lockdown, the group sprung back to life. As I waded through some 100,000 WhatsApp communications, it became apparent that exchanges in March 2020 had been removed from the cache.

As Hancock prepares to give evidence to the public inquiry on the pandemic this week, barristers must do what I could not, and ask him what it was about that critical period that he considered too sensitive to share.

I had been planning to confront Hancock about the missing messages myself this time last year when he suddenly went AWOL. One minute we were racing to complete his Pandemic Diaries; the next he had vanished to the I’m a Celebrity jungle. Throughout our collaboration, he had been pleasingly open with me, which made the absence of the March messages all the more troubling. Loathe to sour what was a positive working relationship, I had waited until the end of our project to raise the subject. Then he disappeared to Australia and it was too late.

As entertaining as it was to watch the former health secretary being covered in critters, I was frustrated. He had plunged our project into turmoil. We had yet to finalise designs for the book jacket. Worse, we were embroiled in stressful negotiations with the Cabinet Office over elements of the manuscript they did not like. While Hancock sought to show the nation his “true self” by chowing down on a camel penis, I had been left with a pile of problems.

A year on, many questions remain about March 2020, though we are somewhat the wiser. Thanks to evidence given to the inquiry by other members of that WhatsApp group, we know that the nation came tantalisingly close to avoiding lockdowns altogether. Plan A was to achieve so-called “herd immunity” to the virus, by allowing younger, healthy people to catch it, while protecting the elderly and vulnerable. The hope was that, if at least 60 per cent of the population was infected, there would be a “single peak” of sickness, and no deadly second wave.

Cummings has testified that the Cabinet Office, Sage and Hancock’s department were initially united in their support for this approach. At a press conference on March 12, Vallance stated that it was neither possible nor desirable to stop everybody getting the virus. Asked the following day as to why the UK was continuing life as normal, he suggested that there was no point in locking everything down for months because the virus would spring back when restrictions were lifted. (That is exactly what it did.)

All that changed in mid-March, when Cummings was struck by what he has called an “appalling feeling” of impending doom. Rattled by outlandish modelling of worst-case scenario death rates and suggestions that the NHS could “collapse,” on March 13 (the date the CSA-CMO-Matt-PM-Dom WhatsApp group was created), Cummings and others stood in front of a whiteboard and began sketching out a “Plan B”. This was a national lockdown.

Despite all the time and money spent, the inquiry has yet to address arguably the most important question of all: with the benefit of hindsight, would it have been better to have stuck to Plan A? Hancock’s missing messages might shed a little more light on the matter. If the inquiry has not obtained the data, the judge must renew efforts to do so.

As for his testimony? He won’t give an inch. The cost of lockdowns has been so devastating that it is too hard for those responsible to admit it may all have been a mistake. To this day, Hancock remains adamant that it would have been murderous to “let the virus rip”. He is still utterly scathing of the many eminent proponents of so-called targeted protection, and dismissive of the terrible social, economic and health impact of lockdowns.

As he faces the grilling for which he has been preparing since the earliest days of the crisis, expect no contrition. He will do what everyone else in this costly charade has done – and double down.

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