LONDON – Coronavirus lockdowns have been lifted and face masks are few and far between in Britain these days.
But COVID-19 has shot back into the headlines through the leak of more than 100,000 private messages sent or received by the health minister as the government scrambled to respond to the new, fast-spreading respiratory virus.
The words of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock in 2020 have revived painful debates in a country that has seen more than 182,000 coronavirus deaths. Could some deaths have been avoided if lockdowns came sooner, or did more people suffer because restrictions lasted too long?
The nature of the leak has also sparked a storm. Hancock shared his WhatsApp messages with journalist Isabel Oakeshott as they worked on a book, “Pandemic Diaries.” Oakeshott, in turn, handed the messages to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, which has splashed them in a series of front-page stories.
Hancock accused the journalist of a “massive betrayal and breach of trust,” but Oakeshott argued that she'd acted in the public interest.
“This is about the millions of people, every one of us in this country that were adversely affected by the catastrophic decisions to lock down this country repeatedly, often on the flimsiest of evidence for political reasons,” Oakeshott told the BBC.
Hancock said there was no public interest, because he has already given the messages to a public inquiry into Britain’s handling of COVID-19, which is due to start its hearings later this year.
Critics say Oakeshott has a well-known political agenda. She has called lockdowns a “disaster,” and her partner is politician Richard Tice, leader of the lockdown-skeptical Reform Party, formerly known as the Brexit Party.
The Telegraph stories quote selectively from the messages to convey the idea that Hancock resisted others — including then Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who were wary of stringent restrictions.
Steven Barnett, professor of journalism at the University of Westminster, said the Hancock leak was less about the public interest than “about driving an agenda that says the lockdown policies were wrong.”
“As often happens in the U.K. with print journalism, we are getting an agenda being driven by a particular newspaper with a very clear view of what is right and what is wrong," he said.
Others said Hancock was naive to have trusted Oakeshott, who has a history of spilling secrets.
In 2019, she revealed leaked memos in which the U.K. ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch, called the Trump administration dysfunctional and inept. The White House cut off contact with the British envoy, and Darroch had to resign.
In 2011, Oakeshott wrote a story disclosing that Vicky Pryce, an economist married to a lawmaker, had lied to police to let her husband escape a speeding fine. Oakeshott later handed her correspondence with Pryce to prosecutors. Both Pryce and her now ex-husband ended up going to prison.
The Telegraph stories have stirred painful memories for many in Britain, which had one of Europe’s highest coronavirus death tolls. One article claimed that Hancock ignored scientific advice to test everyone entering nursing homes for COVID-19, a lapse that led to thousands of deaths.
Hancock said the messages had been deceptively edited. He said testing at the time was limited — in Britain and elsewhere — by a lack of capacity.
James Bethell, a former junior health minister, defended Hancock, saying the messages reflected the confused early days of the pandemic, when officials were working under intense pressure with incomplete knowledge.
“There was a moment we were very unclear about whether domestic pets could transmit the disease,” he told Channel 4 News. “In fact, there was an idea at one moment that we might have to ask the public to exterminate all the cats in Britain."
Lindsay Jackson, spokesperson for the pressure group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the leaks showed the importance of families being allowed to question Hancock and other officials during the public inquiry, “so we can get full answers to our questions in the right setting instead of having to relive the horrors of our loss through exposés.”
The revelations are the latest setback for Hancock, who was forced to resign from the Conservative government in June 2021 after breaching coronavirus lockdown rules by having an affair with an aide — violating a ban on different households mixing.
He remains a lawmaker, but was suspended by the Conservative Party in November for flying to Australia for several weeks to appear on television reality show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here.”
Hancock apologized Thursday for the impact of the leaks “on the very many people — political colleagues, civil servants and friends — who worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives.”
“I will not be commenting further on any other stories or false allegations that Isabel will make,” he said in a statement. “I will respond to the substance in the appropriate place, at the inquiry, so that we can properly learn all the lessons based on a full and objective understanding of what happened in the pandemic, and why.”