Matt Hancock mocked Eat Out To Help Out amid concerns about spread of Covid-19

Matt Hancock was health secretary for much of the Covid-19 pandemic (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)
Matt Hancock was health secretary for much of the Covid-19 pandemic (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Matt Hancock mocked Rishi Sunak’s “Eat Out To Help Out” scheme and expressed concern that it would fuel the spread of Covid-19, according to leaked WhatsApp messages.

The former Health Secretary dubbed the scheme “eat out to help the virus get about” amid fears that the increase in indoor dining sparked a second wave of the virus.

Eat Out To Help Out was among a package of measures announced by Mr Sunak to kickstart the economy in summer 2020.

Under the Treasury scheme, diners received a 50 per cent discount on food and non-alcoholic drinks at participating restaurants from Monday to Wednesday. It launched on August 3, 2020, when social distancing measures were relaxed following the first national lockdown.

WhatsApp messages published by the Telegraph as part of its Lockdown Files investigation reveal that Mr Hancock was privately anxious over the scheme.

In a message to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case dated August 24, 2020, he wrote: “Just want to let you know directly that we have had lots of feedback that Eat our (sic) to help out is causing problems in our intervention areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious. So please please lets not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”

Asked by Mr Case whether he had informed Mr Sunak of his concerns, the ex-Health Secretary replied: “Yes and we’ve told treasury – we’ve been protecting them in the comms & thankfully it hasn’t bubbles up (sic).”

Mr Case noted that restaurants were “insanely packed” from Monday through to Wednesday but “totally deserted” in the second half of the week.

In a message to an aide in December 2020, Mr Hancock also referred to the scheme as “eat out to help the virus get about”.

Eat out to Help Out was a flagship policy of Rishi Sunak’s Treasury (PA)
Eat out to Help Out was a flagship policy of Rishi Sunak’s Treasury (PA)

The Standard was not able to independently verify the messages.

A study conducted by Warwick University, published in October 2020, found that the scheme had “caused a significant rise in new infections”. By September 14, the Government had introduced a six-person limit on socialising and later imposed a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants.

One exchange, from June 2020, came as the Government considered how to relax restrictions. The messages show that Mr Hancock wanted cafes and restaurants to keep a register of customers’ details for NHS Test and Trace, urging that guidance would read “should” as opposed to “can”.

The latter phrasing, according to the messages, was preferred by then-business secretary Sir Alok Sharma.

“The language on customer logs has just gone from ‘should’ to ‘can’. Grateful if you can fix – we can’t reverse this at the last minute!” Mr Hancock said.

Mr Case replied: “Alok blocking ‘should’. Will need to fix after this meeting.”

Later, he said: “If Alok mad enough to raise it, PM will probably be clear again.”

Mr Hancock, responding, says that the “question I can’t understand is why Alok is against controlling the virus. Strange approach”.

“Pure Conservative ideology,” Mr Case responds.

The Telegraph has obtained more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages between Mr Hancock, ministers and officials over the course of the pandemic. They were passed to the newspaper by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who ghost-wrote Mr Hancock’s memoir.

Ms Oakeshott, who has described lockdowns as a “disaster”, said she was releasing the messages as the official Covid inquiry would take “many years” and could be a “whitewash”.

In response, a spokesperson for Mr Hancock accused Ms Oakeshott and the newspaper of twisting the messages to fit an “anti-lockdown agenda”.

They insisted that an inquiry remains “the right place for an analysis of what happened in the pandemic”.