Labour demands Covid inquiry report ‘by end of year’ after leak of Hancock WhatsApps

Sir Keir Starmer during Prime Minister’s Questions  (PA)
Sir Keir Starmer during Prime Minister’s Questions (PA)

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday called for the Covid inquiry to be ready to “report by the end of this year” as a row raged over leaked messages sent by Matt Hancock in the early weeks of the pandemic.

A Telegraph investigation of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages involving the then-Health Secretary in 2020 has sparked claims he rejected clinical advice to give Covid tests to all residents going into care homes in England.

While Mr Hancock has denied the claims, the leak prompted further questions from the Opposition over the Covid inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Starmer said the inquiry has cost taxpayers £85 million and has yet to hear from a single Government minister.

He urged for the Government to provide the inquiry with “whatever support it needs to report by the end of this year”.

The Labour leader added: “Families across the country will look at this, and the sight of politicians writing books portraying them as heroes will be an insulting and ghoulish spectacle for them.”

He was referring to Mr Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries memoir, which is being worked on by journalist Isabel Oakeshott who leaked the messages.

In reponse Rishi Sunak inisted the official coronavirus inquiry was the “right way” to scrutinise the handling of the pandemic.

The Prime Minister urged people not to focus on “piecemeal bits of information” and to let the inquiry “get on with the job”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at PMQs on Wednesday (PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at PMQs on Wednesday (PA)

Allies of Mr Hancock alleged the messages have been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.

Mr Hancock’s spokesperson said claims he rejected clinical advice on care home testing were “flat wrong” because he was told it was “not currently possible” to carry out the tests.

Downing Street has insisted leaks are taken “seriously” and said it was for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to investigate data protection issues.

Health minister Helen Whately went further to criticise the “very selective information” that has been published, adding that “selective snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and at times misleading insight”.

The Telegraph has billed more revelations in the coming days and says it has messages from Mr Sunak as well as then-prime minister Boris Johnson.

It claimed England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty advised Mr Hancock in April 2020 that there should be testing for “all going into care homes”.

Mr Hancock described it as “obviously a good, positive step”.

Matt Hancock (PA Wire)
Matt Hancock (PA Wire)

But the newspaper reported that the exchanges, from April 14 2020, suggested Mr Hancock ultimately rejected the guidance, telling an aide the move just “muddies the waters”, and introduced mandatory testing only for those coming from hospitals rather than the community.

Allies of Mr Hancock said that was because a lack of testing capacity meant it was not possible to check everyone entering a care home.

A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: “These stolen messages have been doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice on care home testing. This is flat wrong.

“Matt concluded that the testing of people leaving hospital for care homes should be prioritised because of the higher risks of transmission, as it wasn’t possible to mandate everyone going into care homes got tested.

“He went as far as was possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives.”

Mr Hancock was “considering all options” including a possible injunction to block further disclosures and action against Ms Oakeshott, who allies said was subject to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

A source close to him told the PA news agency: “She’s broken a legal NDA. Her behaviour is outrageous.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there is “significant public interest” in the claims but it would not be right for the Government to “impose timelines” on the Covid inquiry being carried out by Baroness Hallett.

It is outrageous that this distorted account of the pandemic is being pushed with partial leaks, spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda, which would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives if followed

Spokesman for Matt Hancock

The inquiry chair insisted it “will not drag on for decades” and “there will be no whitewash” at the start of Wednesday’s proceedings.

Ms Oakeshott, who has described lockdowns as an “unmitigated disaster”, had said she was releasing the messages because it would take “many years” before the end of the official Covid inquiry, which she claimed could be a “colossal whitewash”.

“That’s why I’ve decided to release this sensational cache of private communications – because we absolutely cannot wait any longer for answers,” she said.

Lord Bethell, a health minister during the pandemic, said the Government had been “desperately” trying to scale up testing at that point of the crisis but that it was necessary to prioritise who was swabbed due to the available capacity.

“The reality was there was a very, very limited number of those tests,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The Covid inquiry must look into reports Conservative ministers were able to get priority access to tests at a time of national shortage

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper

People who were coming out of hospitals had the highest rates of transmission, therefore “it was sensible and right to prioritise those” first, he said.

Other suggestions in the Telegraph’s files are that in September 2020, during a severe backlog in testing, an adviser to Mr Hancock helped get a test sent to senior Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home.

The aide messaged Mr Hancock to say the lab had “lost” the original test for one of the then-Commons leader’s children, “so we’ve got a courier going to their family home tonight”.

He added: “Jacob’s spad (special adviser) is aware and has helped line it all up, but you might want to text Jacob.”

Commenting on the claim, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “The Covid inquiry must look into reports Conservative ministers were able to get priority access to tests at a time of national shortage.”