LONDON (AP) – The 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 Minister for Health as the Government attempted to respond to the new, rapidly spreading respiratory virus.
The words of former health secretary Matt Hancock in 2020 have reignited painful debates in a country that has seen more than 182,000 coronavirus deaths. Could some deaths have been avoided if lockdowns came earlier, or did more people suffer because the restrictions lasted too long?
The nature of the leak has also sparked a storm. Mr Hancock shared his WhatsApp messages with journalist Isabel Oakeshott while they were working on a book, ‘Pandemic Diaries’. Oakeshott, in turn, handed the messages to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, which has splashed them into a number of front-page articles.
Hancock accused the journalist of a “massive betrayal and breach of trust”, but Oakeshott claimed she had acted in the public interest.
“This is about the millions of people, every single one of us in this country who were adversely affected by the disastrous decisions to shut down this country repeatedly, often on the slightest evidence for political reasons,” Oakeshott told the BBC.
Hancock said there was no public interest, because he has already given the notices to a public inquiry into the UK’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 shutdowns a “disaster” and her partner is politician Richard Tice, leader of the shutdown-skeptic Reform Party, formerly known as the Brexit Party.
The Telegraph stories selectively quote from the messages to convey the idea that Hancock was opposing others – including then-prime minister Boris Johnson – who were wary of strict restrictions.
Steven Barnett, a professor of journalism at the University of Westminster, said the Hancock leak was less about the public interest than “about pushing an agenda that says the lockdown policy was wrong.”
“As often happens in the UK with print journalism, we get an agenda 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 trust Oakeshott, who has a history of leaking secrets.
In 2019, she revealed leaked memos in which the British ambassador to 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 revealing that Vicky Pryce, an economist married to a lawmaker, had lied to the police to allow her husband to escape a speeding ticket. Oakeshott later handed over her correspondence with Pryce to prosecutors. Both Pryce and her now ex-husband ended up going to prison.
The Telegraph stories have brought back painful memories for many in Britain, which had one of Europe’s highest coronavirus death tolls. One article claimed 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 redacted. He said testing at the time was limited – in the UK 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 livestock could transmit the disease,” he told Channel 4 News. “In fact, there was an idea for a moment that we might have to ask the public to exterminate all the cats in the UK.”
Lindsay Jackson, spokeswoman for the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice lobby, 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 on the right. setting rather than having to relive the horrors of our loss through revelations.”
The revelations are the latest setback for Mr 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 – breaching the 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 reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here.”
Hancock apologized Thursday for the impact of the leaks “on so many people – political colleagues, public servants and friends – who worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives.”
“I will not comment on any other stories or false claims that Isabel will make,” he said in a statement. “I will respond to the substance in the right place, at the inquiry, so that we can learn all the lessons in the right way based on a full and objective understanding of what happened in the pandemic, and why.”