The ‘Lockdown Files’ – the trove of WhatsApp messages between senior Government figures during the pandemic, handed to the Telegraph by Isabel Oakeshott after they were given to her by Matt Hancock to help her ghost-write his biography – continue to bring out scandalous revelations about how pandemic management by WhatsApp was conducted. Here are some of the top stories from Wednesday.
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”.
Williamson has written an op-ed for the Telegraph saying that “maybe I should have resigned when my plea to put children first was ignored”, and that “what was most upsetting about shutting schools for a second time in January 2021 was that I felt it wasn’t done for the right reasons”.
Teachers were looking for an “excuse” not to work during the pandemic, the then Education Secretary said.
Sir Gavin Williamson criticised both school staff and unions for their response to coronavirus, saying that the latter “really do just hate work”.
Sir Gavin made the comments in a discussion with Matt Hancock as school staff prepared for the re-opening of classes in May 2020.
By this point, schools had been effectively shut for two months with only vulnerable children and those whose parents were key workers allowed to attend in person. Ministers and teachers were planning for lessons to begin returning in June.
The Government’s most senior scientific advisers told the Prime Minister that the implementation of shielding measures was not “very effective” – but ministers still asked 2.2 million people to follow them for months.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, said in a WhatsApp message in Aug 2020 that shielding implementation –which required people who were clinically “extremely vulnerable” to isolate – had not been “easy or very effective”.
Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, added that he would personally “think twice” about following shielding guidelines himself, unless it was to protect the NHS – which was not their principal aim.
Boris Johnson himself raised the prospect of giving over-65s “a choice” between shielding from the virus or taking what he hoped would be an “ever-diminishing risk” of living a more normal life.
The then Prime Minister compared over-65s’ risk of dying from Covid to that of “falling down stairs”, adding: “And we don’t stop older people from using stairs.”
But, despite reservations, the Government still reintroduced shielding nationally during subsequent national lockdowns. In the worst-affected parts of the country that were placed under local lockdowns and stricter restrictions under the tiers system, many effectively shielded for most of the pandemic.
Care homes refused to test staff for Covid at the height of the pandemic in case they discovered they were positive.
Nearly 100 care homes offered tests said they did not want them, according to WhatsApp messages sent between Helen Whately, the Social Care Minister, and Matt Hancock, the then Health Secretary.
They include 10 care homes in the north of England where, according to the messages, the local director of public health was “worried testing will reveal too many asymptomatic staff”.
Ms. Whately shared the information with Mr Hancock at the start of June 2020, by which point there had already been more than 6,400 outbreaks in care homes, according to official Public Health England data.
The rule, which limited the number of people who could gather in one place, was severely criticised by the Children’s Commissioner because the way it was drawn up kept large households in effective lockdown.
Scotland and Wales included an exemption for children under 12, so they did not count toward the overall number of people allowed to gather. However, the U.K. Government refused to implement a similar exemption in England until April 2021, keeping thousands of children apart from their friends and grandparents.
Helen Whately, the Minister for Adult Social Care, told Matt Hancock on October 11th 2020 that she wanted to “loosen on children under 12” in Tier 1, as “it would make such a difference to families and there isn’t a robust rationale for it”.
Mr. Hancock, who was then Health Secretary, did not oppose Ms. Whately’s view but instead informed her that Downing Street “don’t want to go there on this … as in No10. Also on curfew – they don’t want to shift an inch”.
Mr. Johnson went ahead with the policy despite England’s Chief Medical Officer saying there were “no very strong reasons” to do so. It was one of the most controversial of the pandemic and was not finally ended in England until January 2022 – 16 months later.
Ms. Sturgeon had already announced the compulsory wearing of face masks in corridors and communal areas in Scottish secondary schools when, in August 2020, Mr Johnson asked for advice on whether they were necessary in England.
In WhatsApp messages, Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, appeared ambivalent when asked for his opinion. He said: “No strong reason against in corridors etc., and no very strong reasons for,” adding: “So agree not worth an argument.”
The following day, the Government announced that secondary school children returning to classes in September in areas subject to local lockdown would be required to wear face masks in corridors and communal areas where social distancing was difficult to maintain. The policy was later extended to the classroom.
Matt Hancock, the then-Health Secretary, was warned that “thousands” could miss lessons unnecessarily because of rules the Government put in place around tests when schools returned after the third lockdown in March 2021.
The “incredibly worrying” policy meant that if children tested positive on a lateral flow device at school, they had to isolate and miss lessons for 10 days – even if a more reliable PCR test showed they were negative.
Concerns that children could not afford to miss any more lessons were raised with Mr. Hancock [by a concerned parent who knew him] before schools returned, but the policy was not reversed for almost a month.
Mr. Hancock asked his special advisers to look into it but was told by officials that the policy was “written and distributed and schools prepared, it would be difficult to unpick now”.