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Voices: Why Matt Hancock is convinced the leaked WhatsApp messages will vindicate him

I’m afraid that Matt Hancock – maladroit, adulterous and unnaturally naive – is just one of those people that the public seem to love to hate. The affair with Gina Coladangelo, complete with school disco-style snog, the appearance (and appearance fee) on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and his record as health secretary during the pandemic have all turned up into a sort of cross between Mr Bean and Harold Shipman. It’s a bit absurd.

The one thing I was always sceptical about, however, was the claim that, in the earliest stages of the pandemic, Hancock was callously and prematurely emptying hospitals of older and vulnerable people and dumping them, Covid status unknown, into care homes. Given that the coronavirus was highly infectious and most dangerous to older and vulnerable people that was basically a recipe for mass deaths.

I can well remember from the time the press conferences with Hancock and officials such as deputy chief medical officer for England Jenny Harries, when they said they would test in care homes, but only when there was an outbreak. It seemed wrong to me. Ever since, Hancock’s and Boris Johnson’s little slogan about the government “throwing a protective arm” around care facilities seemed hollow. It was one serious charge against Hancock that seemed to stand up, or at least until the public inquiry took a proper look at it.

Well, it turns out, according to the supposedly sensational WhatsApp messages related by The Daily Telegraph, it would seem that Hancock very much did want to test people leaving hospital and entering care homes – or, at least, as many as they could manage. Chris Whitty plainly recommended testing everyone who was admitted to institutional care – and Hancock accepted the advice. The problem was that there was a shortage of testing capacity. At that time there were none of those handy little lateral flow test kits which are so plentiful now; samples had to be sent away for lab testing, and there wasn’t much of that available, because it was such an unprecedented situation (though maybe the authorities should have made better contingency plans).

Two things seem to flow from this, both actually helpful to Hancock’s shattered reputation. First, after a properly convened meeting, Hancock realised that not everyone going into care could be tested. Whitty’s recommendation couldn’t be implemented for lack of testing capacity. There were simply too many people in the wider community, and so the decision was taken not to test them. The policy instead was to focus the testing on hospital discharges. Presumably, this was on a risk assessment – and, I’d have thought, it would help the hospitals if they knew a patient had recently had Covid. In the homes, they could isolate people according to status.

Hancock’s “crime” was to advise that the relevant press release didn’t highlight this prioritisation because it would “muddy the waters”. In other words, he and his policy would sound much less impressive – and he’d have to admit that the capacity was still inadequate to the task. Even so, he should have been more open and transparent, but it was really that he was applying rather too much spin to his political messaging. If a journalist had asked the right question, then Hancock would have had to admit the limits of the policy. The point though, is that, contrary to his terrible image, Hancock did care enough to want hospital discharges tested, and he did follow Whitty’s advice. He welcomed it, even if he couldn’t physically implement it in full. Seems fair enough to me.

The second new fallacy that seems to have sprouted from these WhatsApp messages is that Hancock’s mania for his 100,000 Covid testing target was a distraction – or somehow got in the way of protecting people in care homes. Surely the exact opposite is the case? If you wanted to protect people, whenever they are – including NHS staff and patients – you needed a huge ramping up of testing work in the nation’s laboratories. This is what former health minister Lord Bethell says was happening, and it is actually what Hancock managed (just about) to achieve.

It seems to me that the Telegraph and the journalist concerned are the ones who have an agenda – anti-lockdown (though the testing issue didn’t have much to do with that) and they’ll use the selective quotation of WhatsApp messages to discredit the social restrictions that were necessary at the time to prevent the NHS from collapse and many more people from dying.

With hindsight, and with the easy testing, vaccines and treatments we have now, some of the rules look extreme; but at the time there was no defence at all, and the original variants were probably more deadly. The callous thing is to spread the rumours that the masks, the social distancing, the lockdowns – even the virus itself – were some kind of plot aimed at social control by shadowy forces, and were in any case unnecessary. But they were all necessary and deaths and long covid cases would have been much higher without these essential measures – half a million fatalities were avoided.

What I believe people like the Telegraph really mean is the efforts to support the economy were hugely expensive, and in a system of broadly progressive taxation, it is the rich who will eventually have to pay for the wider social good. Perhaps they don’t like it, and they’re now propagating myths so that, when the next pandemic comes, we’re all told to take our chances?

Hancock is mere collateral damage in a much wider campaign of misinformation, preempting and undermining the senior judge Baroness Hallett’s careful public inquiry by sections of the press – smeared as a “whitewash” before it’s even begun, just because names of blameless junior civil servants are being redacted from thousands of emails (not least to protect them from being pursued by the conspiracy theorists). For me, it’s this kind of journalism that’s the real threat to public health.