Matt Hancock staged ‘rearguard’ action to close schools
Matt Hancock mounted a “rearguard action” to close schools despite Sir Gavin Williamson battling “tooth and nail” to keep classrooms open, leaked WhatsApp messages reveal.
Exchanges seen by The Telegraph reveal that the then health secretary battled the education secretary in late December 2020 and suggested it was “mad” that Sir Gavin was attempting to keep schools open.
Mr Hancock initially lost a Cabinet argument during which he tried to persuade the Prime Minister to close schools ahead of their return in January 2021.
After Boris Johnson sided with Sir Gavin, Mr Hancock told an aide: “The next U-turn is born” and added: “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.”
Messages show that Mr Hancock immediately contacted Dan Rosenfield, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, and began an attempt to have schools closed before children returned. He then provided his private email address.
As the planned reopening became increasingly chaotic over the following week, with U-turns on dates and testing requirements for secondary schools, Mr Hancock and his team said Sir Gavin was having to eat “humble pie”.
On Jan 4, after many younger children had returned to classes for a single day, Mr Johnson announced that schools would close and exams would be cancelled amid a national lockdown. After the closures on Jan 4, schools did not reopen until March 8, depriving nine million children of another two months of education.
In an article for The Telegraph, Sir Gavin reveals that he considered quitting his post over the decision to close schools.
“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.
The Lockdown Files show that Mr Hancock’s push to shut schools was just one of a number of repeated instances where the interests of children were apparently disregarded in favour of restrictions. Many of the measures went against the counsel of scientific advisers.
The decisions made around children’s education were among the most controversial of the pandemic. Studies have shown that keeping children away from the classroom led to a rise in mental health problems and a decline in development. Some children lost more than 100 days of schooling because of closures alone.
The latest revelations follow Wednesday’s disclosure that Mr Hancock had rejected the advice of Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, to test all residents going into care homes a month into the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Covid victims’ families expressed their anger and went so far as to call for a police investigation to run in parallel with the ongoing public inquiry.
Lindsay Jackson, from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “This looks like evidence that Matt Hancock refused to follow the scientific advice and test everyone going into care homes in case it set back his arbitrary target of 100,000 tests a day which he thought would make a good headline.
“What is certain is that the failure to protect care homes led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, like my mum's, and meant hospitals became even more overwhelmed and even longer lockdowns were required to prevent further loss of life.”
Ms Jackson said a “serious police investigation” was needed to work with the ongoing public inquiry, which she described as “so far... incredibly disappointing”.
Nadra Ahmed, the executive chairman of the National Care Association, said: “This highlights once again that expert advice was ignored and the only mantra was to ‘protect’ the NHS. There is no hiding from the truth.”
The Telegraph’s Lockdown Files prompted Sir Keir Starmer to raise the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions and for an urgent question to be asked in the House of Commons.
Mr Hancock is likely to face further questions as the Lockdown Files show that his push to close schools came despite repeated warnings of the devastating impact that the policy was having on a generation of children.
During a crunch meeting on the planned reopening of schools in December 2020, the former health secretary and Emma Dean, his special adviser, spoke about Sir Gavin as he argued during a Zoom meeting with the prime minister for schools to open as planned in January 2021.
As the pair watched Sir Gavin make his submissions, Ms Dean said the education secretary was “freaking out”, adding: “You can tell he isnt being wholly rationale. Just by his body language.” Mr Hancock responded: “I’m having to turn the volume down”.
At the end of the Zoom meeting, Mr Hancock said that he did not want to have “a call with the testing team later to go over the plan for school testing” and instead wanted to “fight a rearguard action”.
His conversations with Mr Rosenfield do not appear in the conversations that have been leaked to the Telegraph. Mr Hancock instead provided his personal email address after the PM’s chief of staff agreed to discuss the issue with him.
It is unclear whether conversations on private email will be handed over to the forthcoming Covid inquiry, although Hugo Keith KC, the chief counsel for the inquiry, said on Wednesday that witnesses have been encouraged to disclose “any informal or private communications”.
Sir Keir called on Rishi Sunak to bring forward the inquiry timetable to report by the end of the year and took an extraordinary swipe at Mr Hancock over payments he received for the publication of his diary of the pandemic.
He said: “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.”
Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow social care minister, who asked the urgent question, said: “Throughout the Covid pandemic, ministers repeatedly claimed they threw a protective ring around England’s care homes and always followed the evidence and scientific advice, but WhatsApp messages from the former health secretary revealed in The Telegraph, suggest nothing could be further from the truth.”
Downing Street said on Wednesday that there was “significant public interest” in the Lockdown Files.
At a Covid inquiry hearing, Mr Keith said that the inquiry was aware of WhatsApp messages “of which reference has been made by press” and was “already significantly engaged in the process of obtaining WhatsApp messages ourselves”.
He said the inquiry was in possession of more than 60 WhatsApp groups, adding: “and there will be many more to come, I have no doubt.”
Mr Hancock said he had already handed his WhatsApp messages to the inquiry and accused the Telegraph of publishing selective leaks.
In a statement, his spokesman said: “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. What the messages do show is a lot of people working hard to save lives.
“The story spun on care homes is completely wrong. What the messages show is that Mr Hancock pushed for testing of those going into care homes when that testing was available.
“Instead of spinning and leaks we need the full, comprehensive inquiry, to ensure we are as well prepared as we can be for the next pandemic, whenever it comes.”
On Wednesday night, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic. We are committed to learning from the Covid inquiry’s findings, which will play a key role in informing the government’s planning and preparations for the future.”
How Williamson ate 'humble pie' as Hancock worked behind his back to lock down schools
It was a particularly bad fortnight in a bad war for Sir Gavin Williamson. His pandemic had been marked by U-turn after U-turn on closures and exams against a backdrop of growing anger that it was children who were paying the ultimate price for lockdown. But, on Dec 21 2020, after nine months of disrupted learning, the education secretary was confident that “there are no plans for schools to close”.
The science was on his side, he said. Classrooms were not driving transmission and the Chief Medical Officer had said that the risks of keeping children at home were greater than sending them to school. Now, for the first time, the Telegraph can reveal the behind-the-scenes battle which saw his assurances crumble and schools close exactly two weeks later.
Despite ministers including Matt Hancock saying that they were doing all they could to keep schools open, behind the scenes the then health secretary was running a “rearguard action” to keep pupils at home. WhatsApp messages reveal that while he was offering to help Sir Gavin to his face, behind his back Mr Hancock and his advisers were mocking him for “freaking out” and joking that he was having to eat “humble pie”.
On Dec 28 the position was that schools would open to all primary age children, with opening of secondaries delayed by a week to allow for mass testing to be set up. But as cases rose rapidly as the new Kent variant of the virus took hold, Boris Johnson convened a crunch video meeting to decide on the fate of students and teachers. During the Zoom call, as Sir Gavin fought to keep schools open, Mr Hancock and his special adviser Emma Dean sent one another messages seemingly commentating on the video call’s events.
It appears that Mr Hancock is then given the opportunity to put forward his case to the meeting about what he wants to happen with school closures.
At the end of the meeting, the plan for reopening remained unchanged and Sir Gavin had “won” the argument for the first classes to return on Jan 4. The detailed discussions remain secret, but later that day Downing Street publicly admitted that the plan was now under review.
Mr Hancock, who wanted schools to close, suggested that the current position would not hold, expressing the view that the “next u-turn is born”. As the meeting ended, Mr Hancock apparently began his fight for “rearguard action” by turning immediately to Dan Rosenfield, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, and handing over his private email address in order to discuss what they were going to do about the “car crash”.
Gold command meetings were weekly meetings chaired by Mr Hancock to identify Covid hotspots and areas for intervention. It would appear, after the Zoom call, that Mr Hancock and Sir Gavin had agreed that, rather than blanket closures favoured by the health secretary, schools would close in areas of high infection “where needed”.
The following day, however, Mr Hancock appears to be once again frustrated by the position of his Cabinet colleague. They appear to have agreed on a strategy for the staggered return of university students, but once again Sir Gavin is insisting that schools remain open.
The following day, Dec 30, began the first of what would be a series of five U-turns over the course of six days, as ministers rewrote the schools policy to push back the opening of secondaries by an extra week. Primaries in 50 council areas where Covid cases were high would not re-open for two weeks, it was announced. Despite Mr Hancock insisting it was not a negotiation, the horse trading continued. He complained to Mr Rosenfield that the “DfE now rowing back on all the things Gavin floated in the meeting - and my spirit of communal love and compromise is somewhat stretched”. The health secretary also questioned a calculation by officials which said that 22 per cent of primary schools could close.
As the Cabinet squabbled over restrictions, Helen Whately, then care minister, asked if she could help Mr Hancock “on the schools argument”. The new variant had taken hold in her constituency of Faversham and Mid Kent.
It was not the first time that Mr Hancock had mocked Sir Gavin. In an earlier exchange in September, fresh from the chaos around exams in which the education secretary had been forced to abandon grades calculated by a controversial algorithm, Ms Dean asked about whether he was coping.
In the end Mr Hancock’s argument won. In one of the biggest reversals of the pandemic, Boris Johnson went on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday January 3 to insist, no fewer than six times, that schools were safe and to persuade parents that they should pack off their children to primaries the following morning. A day later, after classes had finished, he announced that all classrooms would close for at least six weeks as a new lockdown was introduced.
As the public struggled to digest the news of the third lockdown, messages from Mr Hancock show that he did have some concern about closures, in particular of golf courses and takeaway beer. But he was reminded by Mr Rosenfield that they should hold firm, given that they had just cancelled classes for millions of children.