Covid WhatsApp files reveal clashes at heart of government over school closures

Former UK health secretary Matt Hancock sought to fight 'rearguard action' after decision to open classrooms

Former health secretary Matt Hancock believed the move to reopen schools represented a 'policy car crash'. PA
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Newly leaked WhatsApp messages have revealed behind-the-scenes clashes in the UK government over school closures during the coronavirus pandemic.

Texts by former health secretary Matt Hancock revealed he had sought to fight a “rearguard action” after education secretary at the time Gavin Williamson convinced Boris Johnson, then prime minister, to reopen schools in January 2021 after the UK's second Covid lockdown.

Mr Hancock had said the move represented a “policy car crash” and would result in a surge in coronavirus cases once pupils returned to the classroom.

Journalist Isabel Oakeshott obtained the sensitive messages between government ministers when she collaborated with Mr Hancock on his memoirs, The Pandemic Diaries, released in December.

Mr Hancock has since described himself as a victim of a “massive betrayal and breach of trust” after contents from the collection of more than 100,000 texts were published by The Daily Telegraph this week.

On Thursday, the newspaper released messages between Mr Hancock and his special adviser Emma Dean following a meeting in which Mr Williamson convinced Mr Johnson to reopen schools in January 2021, despite a surge in cases that winter.

Ms Dean, after speaking to Mr Williamson following a government meeting on Zoom, said: “You can tell he isn't being wholly rational. Just by his body language.”

Mr Hancock, who was also present at the virtual meeting with Mr Johnson, said: “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.”

Isabel Oakeshott released thousands of Matt Hancock's WhatsApp messages after collaborating with him on his memoirs. PA

Mr Hancock replied: “I’m having to turn the volume down.”

The Telegraph said the messages showed he then contacted Dan Rosenfield, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, to begin his attempt to have schools closed before children returned, providing him with his private email address.

In the event, on January 4, after many younger children had returned to classes for a single day, Mr Johnson announced schools would close and exams would be cancelled amid a national lockdown. They did not reopen until March 8.

The messages also revealed how Mr Williamson claimed that teachers' unions were trying to avoid work after he announced his decision to delay school exams for a few weeks.

“Cracking announcement today,” Mr Hancock wrote as he used an expletive to describe the teachers' unions.

Mr Williamson responded: “I know they really, really do just hate work.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb said it would be up to the official Covid-19 inquiry to look at whether the government made the right decisions to keep schools open or closed during the pandemic.

The Conservative MP, during an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, claimed ministers “always took decisions based on what was in the best interests of children”.

Ms Oakeshott, a lockdown sceptic, says she released the trove of texts in the public interest and claims she was threatened by Mr Hancock in a late-night message after the newspaper began publishing its stories.

Mr Hancock said: “I am hugely disappointed and sad at the massive betrayal and breach of trust by Isabel Oakeshott.

“I am also sorry for the impact on the very many people — political colleagues, civil servants and friends — who worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives.”

He said there was “absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach” because all the material used for his Pandemic Diaries book was given to the Covid-19 public inquiry.

Explaining the message he sent to the journalist, he said: “Last night, I was accused of sending menacing messages to Isabel. This is also wrong.

“When I heard confused rumours of a publication late on Tuesday night, I called and messaged Isabel to ask her if she had ‘any clues’ about it and got no response. When I then saw what she’d done, I messaged to say it was ‘a big mistake’. Nothing more.”

Ms Oakeshott said she would not be involved in a “slanging match” with Mr Hancock “because it wouldn’t be pretty”.

“He can threaten me all he likes,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

“There are plenty of things I can say about his behaviour, by the way, that I’m not going to do — at least not at this stage — because this is not about Matt Hancock. It is so much bigger than that.”

Updated: March 02, 2023, 4:27 PM