Gavin Williamson said teaching unions ‘really hate work’ in message to Matt Hancock, WhatsApp leaks reveal

Former education secretary Gavin Williamson said teachers “really do just hate work” in a message to Matt Hancock, according to the latest leaked messages.

Mr Hancock, then health secretary, was also involved in a bitter behind-the-scenes clash with Sir Gavin over moves to keep schools open during the Covid pandemic.

Mr Hancock messaged Sir Gavin to congratulate him on a decision to delay A-level exams for a few weeks, according to messages published by The Daily Telegraph

“Cracking announcement today. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are,” he wrote.

Sir Gavin responded: “I know they really really do just hate work.”

Discussing schools buying PPE, Mr Williamson texted: “Some will just want to say they can’t so they have an excuse to avoid having to teach, what joys!!!”

Following their publication by The Telegraph, the former education secretary tweeted that his comments had been “about some unions and not teachers”.

He added: “I have the utmost respect for teachers who work tirelessly to support students.”

The tranche of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages was leaked by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who was given the material by Mr Hancock when they were working together on a book about his time in government during the pandemic.

The paper highlighted an exchange between Mr Hancock and one of his aides from December 2020 after Sir Gavin persuaded Boris Johnson that schools in England should reopen as planned at the start of the January term.

The latest messages feature an exchange between Mr Hancock and Emma Dean, a special adviser, during a Zoom meeting in which Sir Gavin convinced the prime minister the January reopening should go ahead despite concerns about the second Covid wave then gripping the country.

Ms Dean said the education secretary was “freaking out”, adding: “You can tell he isn’t being wholly rationale. Just by his body language.”

Mr Hancock replied: “I’m having to turn the volume down.”

At the end of the meeting, Mr Hancock said: “I want to find a way, Gavin having won the day, of actually preventing a policy car crash when the kids spread the disease in January. And for that we must now fight a rear-guard action.”

Matt Hancock suggested he needed to fight a ‘rear-guard action’ in policy fight with Gavin Williamson (Getty Images)
Matt Hancock suggested he needed to fight a ‘rear-guard action’ in policy fight with Gavin Williamson (Getty Images)

The Telegraph said the messages show he then contacted Dan Rosenfield, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, to begin his attempt to have schools closed before children returned, providing him with his private email address.

In the event, on January 4, after many younger children had returned to classes for a single day, Mr Johnson announced schools would close and exams would be cancelled amid a national lockdown. They did not reopen until March 8.

In an article for The Telegraph, Sir Gavin said that he had considered quitting over the decision as he was so unhappy.

“Looking back now, I wonder whether I should have resigned at that point. I certainly thought long and deeply over whether I should have gone then. I just felt so personally upset about it,” he wrote.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) union, said Mr Williamson’s comments were “snide” and “contemptible”.

The union leader said he hoped the “brightest and best” young people might want to become politicians, but “that is less likely this morning because of that sneering denigration of the teaching profession”.

Sir Gavin Williamson has come under fire over messages (PA Archive)
Sir Gavin Williamson has come under fire over messages (PA Archive)

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson has said the WhatsApp exchanges between Mr Williamson and Mr Hancock were a “kick in the teeth’” for teachers.

“They add insult to injury at a time when fewer people are joining the profession, and when teachers are leaving classrooms in their droves,” she said.

Tory schools minister Nick Gibb defended Mr Williamson, telling LBC people said things “in the heat of the moment” on WhatsApp that “they don’t really believe”.

“I think [Mr Williamson] was talking about the union, but I don’t think he believes that either. Gavin’s own wife is a primary school teacher. I’ve worked with Gavin for two years. I know he holds teachers in the highest regard,” said the minister.

No 10 has said it does not agree with any suggestion that teachers were trying to find an “excuse” not to work during Covid. The PM’s official spokesman said that Rishi Sunak “hugely values our hard-working teachers who did so much during the pandemic to help minimise disruption to children’s education”.

Earlier, Ms Oakeshott confirmed that she had broken an non-disclosure agreement with Mr Hancock – although she argued that her action was overwhelmingly in the “public interest”.

She acknowledged however that he was not happy at what she had done. “I received a somewhat menacing message from him at 1.20 in the morning,” she told TalkTV’s Piers Morgan Uncensored.

Mr Hancock, who accused her of “massive betrayal” denied sending a menacing message. “When I then saw what she’d done, I messaged to say it was ‘a big mistake’. Nothing more.”