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WhatsApp leak shows Matt Hancock 'overlooked' school pupils, ex-children's commissioner says

Anne Longfield was the UK Government's children's commissioner during the pandemic - Paul Grover for The Telegraph
Anne Longfield was the UK Government's children's commissioner during the pandemic - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Matt Hancock "overlooked" school pupils during Covid, the former children's commissioner has suggested after the latest WhatsApp leak.

The Lockdown Files published by this newspaper show the former health secretary clashed with Sir Gavin Williamson, then the education secretary, behind closed doors on whether to keep classrooms 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.

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson sided with Sir Gavin who had battled "tooth and nail" to keep pupils in class, prompting Mr Hancock to tell an aide that "we must now fight a rearguard action" to shut them and mocked Sir Gavin for having to eat "humble pie" as U-turns and chaos grew.

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, depriving nine million children of another two months of education with catastrophic impacts on their wellbeing.

The Lockdown Files also show that face masks were controversially introduced in schools for the first time after Boris Johnson was told it was “not worth an argument” with the more radical Nicola Sturgeon over the issue, despite England’s Chief Medical Officer saying there were “no very strong reasons” to do so.

They were in place for 16 months until January 2022.

'Children were forgotten'

Anne Longfield, who was the Government's children's tsar during Covid, said "there wasn't an understanding of the impact that staying at home would be" on children and they were "always down in the pecking order of decision making, which didn’t happen in other countries".

Asked about The Telegraph's findings on BBC Radio 4 Today, she said: "It’s an extraordinary look behind the scenes at how decisions were made or seen to be made.

Matt Hancock mounted a 'rearguard action' to close schools - Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Matt Hancock mounted a 'rearguard action' to close schools - Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images

"What is shows is what so many of us thought was happening at the time – that children were at best being forgotten often in decision making but at worst potentially overlooked.

"There was always another game in town in terms of decisions, there was always another priority. That moment where schools remained closed in June but pubs, shops, theme parks and even zoos opened – but children stayed at home.

"Of course that went on, it was the largest disruption in education in children’s lives since World War One and children are living with those consequences now."

Hancock's 'callous disregard'

Arabella Skinner from UsForThem, a campaign group of parents who fought lockdown school closures repeatedly, said: "The callous disregard that Matt Hancock and his team show for the needs of children and their education confirms the worst fears of those of us who spoke out against these unjustified and disproportionate restrictions.

"To force children into masks on a political whim, to choose to keep the rule of six in place for comms reasons, and to be more concerned about golf clubs and takeaway beer when he had forced the closure of schools for a second time despite knowing the catastrophic impact on children is abhorrent.

"Throughout the pandemic UsForThem has challenged the proportionality and rationality of the restrictions. We were stonewalled and smeared. Our concerns were justified and should have been listened to. Children’s lives have been upended by this cavalier and reckless decision making.

"We need accountability, and to ensure this never happens again. Children need their voices heard and government needs checks and balances which work.”

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. Some children lost more than 100 days of schooling because of closures alone.

Prof Karol Sikora, an oncologist of 50 years and an ex-director on the World Health Organisation's cancer programme, tweeted:

Jamie Jenkins, a former statistician at the Office for National Statistics, added:

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.