UK government 'considered releasing prisoners during Covid lockdown'

Matt Hancock reveals the 'bonkers' proposal in his coming book that covers his time as health secretary

Matt Hancock, former British health secretary. Getty
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The UK government discussed a plan to release “thousands” of prisoners during the Covid-19 lockdown, former health secretary Matt Hancock’s diaries show.

The Daily Mail reported the strategy as it serialises Mr Hancock's journals, as he returns to Westminster after his stint on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

As health secretary, he was one of the key figures in government as the country dealt with the pandemic.

Mr Hancock reveals in his diaries that the Ministry of Justice proposed to release prisoners amid concerns about the spread of the virus.

“A bonkers proposal from the Ministry of Justice to let prisoners out, as they’d be easier to manage if they’re not in prison," he wrote in a diary entry on March 17.

“Yes, really: they actually thought this might be a goer. I was emphasising [my opposition] so hard that all of a sudden my chair could take the strain no longer and ripped, tipping me unceremoniously on to the floor.'”

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“Officials are still insisting that Justice Secretary Rob Buckland wants to release thousands of non-violent prisoners to take the pressure off the system," Mr Hancock wrote later, on April 3.

"I keep writing ‘NO’ in large letters on submissions asking me to sign this off.

“It’s obvious the public won’t wear it, yet the idea keeps going back and forth on paper.

“After about the third iteration, I called Rob Buckland, who to my astonishment told me he’d been advised that I was the one who wanted to release them.

“Unfortunately, this still wasn’t the end of the matter. Clearly someone in Whitehall still thought it was a good idea and kept pushing it, to the point that the PM asked to talk to us both. I made my views crystal clear.

“'We cannot lock up literally everyone in the country except prisoners, who we instead release,' I spluttered.”

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A Ministry of Justice representative said: “HMPPS moved to protect the NHS during the pandemic through the limited release of a very small number of low-level, tagged and risk-assessed prisoners just weeks before they were due to leave prison anyway.

“This was successful in avoiding the thousands of prison deaths predicted by Public Health England.”

According to the paper, Mr Hancock wrote in the prologue to the diaries: “I am proud of what we achieved, especially on the vaccine.

“But there is much to learn for the next public health crisis of this kind, which I am sure will happen in my lifetime.”

Updated: December 02, 2022, 1:11 AM