Matt Hancock’s lockdown WhatsApps: the drip feed that is gripping Westminster

Journalist Isabel Oakeshott breaches non-disclosure agreement to leak 100,000 of former health secretary’s messages

For several weeks rumours have swirled in London media circles that the Daily Telegraph was sitting on a huge story, in scale akin to its infamous leak of MPs’ expenses in 2009. Some staff were said to be working in a secret “bunker” in its offices on Buckingham Palace Road.

At 11pm on Tuesday night, the answer came when it dropped the veil on the Lockdown Files, an investigation into the British government’s handling of the pandemic as revealed through 100,000 contemporaneous WhatsApp messages exchanged with Matt Hancock, the former health secretary.

The revelations so far include that he ignored scientific advice about testing elderly residents in nursing homes, that he sought favourable coverage from past political colleagues who worked in media, and that he engaged in derogatory banter with ministers about the “arses” in education unions and if teachers were willing to work during lockdown.

Hancock whatsapp

Hancock, who resigned after breaching social distancing guidelines to conduct an affair with an adviser, is also well known for his recent appearance on reality television show ‘I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!’. The public dumping this week of the contents of his smartphone messaging app must make him nostalgic for the jungle and snakes.


He has decried the “massive betrayal of trust” that led to the disclosure. Isabel Oakeshott, a British political journalist with a penchant for being part of the story, leaked to the Telegraph all of the WhatsApp messages that Hancock had given her under a non-disclosure agreement to help her ghostwrite his book, Pandemic Diaries.

Many of the messages published in recent days were excluded from the book, which has sold poorly since its launch in December. Meanwhile, the Telegraph’s unredacted private chats with ministers and officials have gone off like a bomb beneath the political and media nexus of Westminster. The daily drip feed is ratcheting up the tension.

In politics, timing is everything. While Wednesday’s messages focused on whether the government properly handled nursing homes, Thursday’s revelations homed in on schools and the attitudes of teachers. Release of the education material comes on the same day as another teacher’s pay strike, this time in Wales and southern England, including London.

Among the most embarrassing exchanges for the government are those between Hancock and Gavin Williamson, who was education secretary at the height of the pandemic. He resigned from a subsequent cabinet position last November under a cloud of bullying allegations. One of Hancock’s aides, Emma Dean, privately messaged him in September 2020 to say Williamson “looks awful”. Hancock responded that he “needs a haircut” and a foreign holiday.

Tensions were swirling at the time with teachers’ unions over the safety of keeping schools open. In private, Williamson was messaging Hancock to suggest teachers were “looking for excuses” not to work. Hancock called their union representatives “a bunch of absolute arses”, to which Williamson replied: “I know, they really just hate work.”

The revelation of such puerile exchanges will do little to ease ongoing tension between teachers’ unions and the government over rolling industrial action that started last month. Niamh Sweeney, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, said today the messages were “absolutely disgraceful”.

Tuesday’s revelations were less titillating but potentially more serious. Chris Whitty, then the British government’s chief medical adviser, appears to have advised Hancock in April 2020 to test all residents going into care homes, including those referred from hospital and also from the community. Hancock’s messages with aides show he ignored the advice on testing from the community, suggesting it would “muddy the waters”.

Almost 21,000 people died in care homes in England and Wales in the first wave of the virus, when the British medical system was overwhelmed. Hancock argues that the Telegraph’s interpretation of the WhatsApps leaked by Oakeshott omit messages that showed it was deemed unfeasible to test all residents coming in from the community at that time.

The messages also reveal Hancock turned to his one-time boss and former Tory chancellor George Osborne, who was editing the Evening Standard tabloid, seeking favourable coverage of his efforts to expand testing in the capital. Osborne duly obliged, although in a separate exchange he told the health secretary “nobody thinks testing is working well, Matt”.

Since the leak emerged Hancock’s representatives have railed against Oakeshott, a vociferous anti-lockdown writer who infamously once wrote a book that claimed former prime minister David Cameron had performed a sex act with a pig’s head while at college. Cameron denied that claim, which Oakeshott subsequently admitted came from a single, uncorroborated source.

Oakeshott has justified her leaking of the material by claiming that the government’s public inquiry into the pandemic was taking too long and could be a “whitewash”. Hancock says “there is absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach” and that the public inquiry has all the messages anyway, and is the proper forum to parse them.

Speculation is now piquing around whether the Telegraph is hiding a haymaker in the form of lockdown messages between Hancock and prime minister Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor during the pandemic and who is known to have wanted to reopen the economy quicker than some medics would have liked.