Matt Hancock's explosive WhatsApp messages lay bare the political handling of the pandemic

·4-min read

To anyone interested in the political handling of the pandemic, Matt Hancock's WhatsApp messages are explosive.

So far, much of our understanding of decision-making and handling of scientific advice to the government has been based on official minutes, committee evidence or rumour.

But are they damning evidence of a minister failing to act on scientific advice? Or are they, in the words of the former health secretary today, a minute-by-minute record of "a lot of people working hard to save lives"?

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What is not up for debate is that COVID infections in care homes were a leading cause of deaths during the first wave of the pandemic. Between mid-March and mid-June of 2020, nearly 20,000 care home residents died with COVID recorded on their death certificates.

So when, on 14 April, according to the messages, Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty called for the testing of all people being sent to care homes, it was genuinely urgent.

So why did Mr Hancock decide, as is suggested in the WhatsApp messages, to only test people being admitted to care homes from hospitals, not from the wider community?

One important factor would have been testing capacity. By 2022, the test and trace system was processing nearly four million COVID tests a week.

But on 14 April 2020, it was fewer than 75,000. While the first walk-through testing centres were being opened, a system for mass community testing was only just being established.

Surely it was sensible to focus limited testing resources where they might have the greatest benefit and testing just those being discharged from hospitals into care homes?

It could explain Mr Hancock's WhatsApp response: "I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters."

Read more:
Hancock faces claims he rejected COVID testing advice for care homes
A timeline of how the COVID outbreak unfolded
What it was like in a care home in April 2020
Former health secretary will not stand at next election

Testing capacity 'high enough for anyone sent into care home'

Even though testing capacity was limited at the time, those involved believe it was certainly high enough to offer testing for anyone being sent into a care home.

"Testing capacity was growing massively," says Alan McNally, the scientist who was tasked with setting up the first of the government's Lighthouse Labs in Milton Keynes.

It had started testing on 26 March. By 8 April, says Mr McNally, his lab was carrying out around 10,000 tests a day, including tests from the community.

Tests from care homes were being fast-tracked given the crisis that was then clearly playing out within them.

Ramping up testing would have helped Hancock meet his target

It's clear from his messages that Mr Hancock was determined to be seen to have met his self-imposed target of 100,000 COVID tests a day which he made on 2 April 2020.

By 14 April, when the "muddies the waters" message was sent, the pressure was certainly mounting.

But at the time, auditing firm Deloitte, which had been contracted by the government to oversee testing, was counting any processed COVID test toward the 100,000 target. That included tests from any source, whether hospital, community test or Lighthouse Lab.

If anything, ramping up testing in the community would only have helped the then-health secretary meet his target.

More revelations to come

Given the vast cache of WhatsApp chats obtained by the Telegraph - 100,000 messages they claim - there will be plenty more revelations to come. It could be a challenging few weeks ahead for Mr Hancock.

At a preliminary hearing today, Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, explained that legally binding "Rule 9" requests had been sent to an exhaustive list of witnesses, including the prime minister, ministers, civil servants and science advisers.

"These documents include, and are not limited to, informal group communications such as text messages and WhatsApp group messages, private messages and emails or contemporaneous diary entries or notes," he said.

The inquiry chair Baroness Hallet hit back at allegations that the inquiry would last "for decades" saying: "I am determined the inquiry will reach conclusions and make recommendations as soon as possible."