Rishi Sunak has defended the official coronavirus inquiry as the “right way” to scrutinise the handling of the pandemic after the extraordinary leak of Matt Hancock’s messages.
The Prime Minister urged people not to focus on “piecemeal bits of information” after a trove of more than 100,000 WhatsApps linked to Mr Hancock’s time as health secretary were handed to the Daily Telegraph.
Mr Hancock was considering legal action while strenuously denying claims he rejected advice to give coronavirus tests to all residents going into English care homes while health secretary.
Allies alleged the messages leaked by journalist Isabel Oakeshott after she was handed them by Mr Hancock while working on his Pandemic Diaries memoir have been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
Mr Hancock’s spokesman said claims he rejected clinical advice on care home testing was “flat wrong” because he was told it was “not currently possible” to carry out the tests.
Downing Street insisted leaks are taken “seriously” and said it was for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to investigate data protection issues, but the watchdog declined to launch an inquiry “at this stage”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starmer called for Mr Sunak to ensure the inquiry had all the support it needed “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.”
Mr Sunak responded: “Rather than comment on piecemeal bits of information, I’m sure the honourable gentleman will agree with me the right way for these things to be looked at is the Covid inquiry.
“There is a proper process to these things, it is an independent inquiry, it has the resources it needs, it has the powers it needs, and what we should do in this House is to let them get on and do their job.”
Health minister Helen Whately went further to criticise the “very selective information” that has been published, adding that “snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and at times misleading insight”.
She pointed to an email from the time that was absent from the Telegraph’s report that said “we can press ahead straight away with hospitals testing patients who are going to care homes” and that “we should aspire to as soon as capacity allows” to extend this to everyone entering a care home.
The Telegraph was billing more revelations in the coming days including messages from Mr Sunak, and has published communications with then-prime minister Boris Johnson.
Its investigation suggested England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty told 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”.
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.”
Downing Street suggested a leak inquiry was not required because the source had been publicly identified.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Leaks regarding data protection issues are a matter for the information commissioner.”
He 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.
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.
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.”
As he battled to meet his own target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, the investigation showed Mr Hancock texted his former boss George Osborne, the ex-chancellor, who was then editing the Evening Standard, to “call in a favour”.
Mr Hancock said he had thousands of spare testing slots which was “obvs good news about spread of virus” but “hard for my target” as he asked for front-page coverage.
Mr Osborne responded: “Yes – of course – all you need to do tomorrow is give some exclusive words to the Standard and I’ll tell the team to splash it.”
The then-health secretary later added: “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!”