Messages show Matt Hancock wanted to ‘frighten everyone’ into following Covid-19 rules

Further revelations about former UK health secretary’s thinking on pandemic revealed as more texts published

Former UK health secretary Matt Hancock told aides he wanted to “frighten the pants off everyone” to ensure compliance with Covid-19 restrictions, according to the latest batch of leaked messages which reveal discussions over when to “deploy” news of a new strain.

The WhatsApp exchanges suggest Mr Hancock and others discussed how to use an announcement about the Kent variant of the virus to scare members of the public into changing their behaviour.

The messages, published in the Sunday Telegraph, show that cabinet secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in stopping the spread of Covid.

In December 2020, the exchanges appear to show concern that London mayor Sadiq Khan could follow the example of Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, who had clashed with the government over the decision to impose stringent lockdown restrictions on the region.


Mr Hancock’s adviser said: “Rather than doing too much forward signalling, we can roll pitch with the new strain.”

“We frighten the pants of everyone with the new strain,” the then health secretary responded.

“But the complication with that Brexit is taking the top line,” he said, in an apparent reference to media coverage of the UK’s EU exit.

“Yep that’s what will get proper behaviour change,” the adviser said.

“When do we deploy the new variant,” Mr Hancock said.

Rapid spread

The conversation, on December 13th, 2020, came amid concerns about the rapid spread of the virus in southeast England.

Mr Hancock announced that a new Covid-19 variant had been identified in the UK the following day.

Five days later it was announced that London and southeast England were to enter a new tier 4 alert level when then prime minister Boris Johnson also cancelled a promised Christmas “bubbles” policy allowing families to meet.

The entirety of England entered the third national lockdown on January 6th, 2021. Messages from January 10th show Mr Hancock and the cabinet secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance.

Mr Case wrote: “More mask-wearing might be the only thing to consider.

“Effectively free and has a very visible impact? Wear masks in all settings outside home and in more workplaces?

“Am not sure that got us much further, did it? Basically, we need to get compliance up.”

Mr Hancock tells Mr Case, after a brief discussion on angling, that he “honestly wouldn’t move on any small things unless we move on a lot”.

‘Looks ridiculous’

Mr Case responded: “I think that is exactly right. Small stuff looks ridiculous. Ramping up messaging – the fear/guilt factor vital.

“I suspect London Nightingale [hospital] coming into use will feel like a big public moment.

“Especially as I guess it will be full within a couple of days (based on current data).”

Journalist Isabel Oakeshott was originally given the material by Mr Hancock while they were collaborating on his memoir. He has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”.

In a statement this week, Mr Hancock said all the materials for his book have been made available to the official Covid-19 inquiry. Oakeshott has said the disclosures are in the public interest. - Guardian