Isabel Oakeshott says Hancock leaks ‘in public interest’ despite criticism

Isabel Oakeshott says Hancock leaks ‘in public interest’ despite criticism

Isabel Oakeshott has said she makes “no apology whatsoever for acting in the national interest” over her disclosure of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages.

The journalist, who is at the centre of a row about the leak of the former health secretary’s correspondence to the Daily Telegraph, hit back at Mr Hancock’s criticism of her actions.

“The greatest betrayal is of the entire country,” she said.

In a statement released on Thursday, she said: “Hard though it may be for him to believe, this isn’t about Matt Hancock, or indeed any other individual politician. Nor is it about me. The greatest betrayal is of the entire country.

“We were all let down by the response to the pandemic and repeated unnecessary lockdowns.

“Children in particular paid a terrible price. Anyone who questioned an approach we now know was fatally flawed was utterly vilified, including highly respected and eminent public health experts, doctors and scientists.

“So far from being protected, the NHS may never recover, as millions of patients condemned to year-long waiting lists are discovering.”

“Meanwhile the economy is in smithereens. It is now essential that the public inquiry, set up almost two years ago, quickly establishes deadlines for its work and answers the urgent question about whether lockdown, with all its impacts, was proportionate. These issues must be addressed well before the next general election,” she said in her statement.

“Against this backdrop, the Telegraph expose is clearly in the overwhelming public interest. The outpouring of support I and the paper have had from ordinary people who suffered – and are still suffering – the consequences of the mistakes we are exposing shows how desperately the nation wants answers.

“I make no apology whatsoever for acting in the national interest: the worst betrayal of all would be to cover up these truths.”

The lengthy statement comes after Mr Hancock said that he was the victim of a “massive betrayal and breach of trust” after the disclosure of WhatsApp messages revealing the inside working of Government during the coronavirus crisis.

The former health secretary also apologised for the impact of the release of the messages on those he had worked with during the pandemic.

Mr Hancock gave the messages to Ms Oakeshott as they collaborated on his memoirs, but she subsequently handed them to the Telegraph newspaper, which has published a series of stories based on the correspondence with fellow ministers and officials.

Matt Hancock in Westminster
Matt Hancock said he feels betrayed (PA)

Mr Hancock said: “I am hugely disappointed and sad at the massive betrayal and breach of trust by Isabel Oakeshott.

“I am also sorry for the impact on the very many people – political colleagues, civil servants and friends – who worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives.”

He said there was “absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach” because all the material used for his Pandemic Diaries book was given to the Covid-19 public inquiry.

Ms Oakeshott also said she was threatened by Mr Hancock in a late-night message after the newspaper began publishing its stories.

Mr Hancock responded: “Last night, I was accused of sending menacing messages to Isabel. This is also wrong.

“When I heard confused rumours of a publication late on Tuesday night, I called and messaged Isabel to ask her if she had ‘any clues’ about it and got no response. When I then saw what she’d done, I messaged to say it was ‘a big mistake’. Nothing more.”

The latest revelations from the collection of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages show Boris Johnson was concerned he would be criticised for “blinking too soon” on ordering a second national lockdown.

The Telegraph reported that the then-prime minister made the observation a day after announcing the lockdown in November 2020, after being warned by a scientist that the decision was based on out-of-date data.

The paper’s investigation also showed that Mr Hancock was involved in a bitter behind-the-scenes clash with then-education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson over moves to keep schools open during the pandemic.

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

Then-education secretary Gavin Williamson visiting a school (PA)
Then-education secretary Gavin Williamson visiting a school (PA)

Mr Hancock and special adviser Emma Dean communicated via WhatsApp during a Zoom meeting in which Sir Gavin convinced the prime minister the January reopening should go ahead despite concerns about the Covid-19 wave then gripping the country.

Ms Dean wrote the then-education secretary was “freaking out”, adding: “You can tell he isn’t being wholly rational. 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 rearguard action.”

The Telegraph said the cache of messages show Mr Hancock 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.