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Why I had to make Matt Hancock’s Covid WhatsApps public

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Why I had to make Matt Hancock’s Covid WhatsApps public

Only one downside – we might have to attend a few years earlier than it reaches any conclusions. That’s why I’ve determined to launch this sensational cache of personal communications – as a result of we completely can’t wait any longer for solutions.

Already, the inquiry is mired in a secrecy row, as attorneys busy themselves redacting civil servants’ names from hundreds of paperwork. By the point all these being paid huge sums of taxpayers’ cash to guard reputations have completed, it’s exhausting to not think about the entire thing may become a colossal whitewash.

It’s much more illuminating to learn these extraordinary messages. They supply an unrivalled perception into when, why and the way the Authorities made crucial choices through the disaster, which is precisely what all of us need to know. No sanitised Civil Service-approved paperwork can evaluate with the rawness of this real-time document.

There’s no secret about how I got here to be in possession of this communications treasure trove. The frequent thread is Matt Hancock, the previous well being secretary.

All through the pandemic, he used the messaging service WhatsApp to speak with colleagues virtually each minute of day-after-day. Following his resignation in June 2021, he downloaded the information from his cellphone and shared them with numerous individuals, together with me. I used to be serving to him to write his book about the crisis, and we drew closely from the fabric to reconstruct his day-by-day account. Suffice to say there was loads of necessary materials left over.

Exactly what wanted to be achieved because the virus started its lethal rampage initially of 2020, and the way the response ought to have developed as the character of the risk was higher understood, is a debate that has solely intensified with the passage of time. Whereas most individuals can forgive early errors by politicians and policymakers, bitter divisions stay over whether or not among the measures that triggered probably the most lasting harm and injury – and the unprecedented assault on civil liberties – had been ever justified. We want pressing solutions.

Sweden wrapped up its investigation a 12 months in the past. The decision, delivered in a neat 800-page report, was that avoiding obligatory lockdowns – an method that made Sweden a world outlier – in the end labored out fairly effectively. After an early wobble over spiralling an infection charges, Swedish ministers doubled down. They had been rewarded with one of many lowest ranges of extra mortality in Europe.

The French didn’t grasp round with their public inquiry both. It started in July 2020, shortly involving police and prosecutors. In Oct 2020, officers raided the properties of senior authorities and well being officers, presumably looking for delicate paperwork. Among the many properties focused had been these of Olivier Veran, the then well being minister, and the director of France’s nationwide well being company. It might sound excessive, however not less than it reveals they imply enterprise. In Italy, the early epicentre of the outbreak in Europe, the formal inquiry has additionally made appreciable progress.

As for the UK? It took the perfect a part of 18 months simply to agree phrases of reference.

Introduced in Might 2021, our public inquiry – which has already cost up to £85 million – has but to start formal hearings. Alarmingly, it doesn’t seem to have any particular timeframe or deadline.

Everyone knows what this implies – it should drag on endlessly. In any case, the investigation into Bloody Sunday took 10 years and was nowhere close to as daunting a process.

Public curiosity

The hopelessly open-ended nature of the formal course of makes these WhatsApp recordsdata all of the extra necessary. Amid the ever-present risk of one other pandemic, maybe extra lethal than the final, we emphatically can’t afford to attend till the mid-2030s and even past to study classes. Those that have data within the public curiosity have to put it on the market proper now.

The communications treasure trove consists of exchanges with Boris Johnson, the then prime minister; Rishi Sunak, the then chancellor; Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary; Priti Patel, the then house secretary; and, certainly, virtually each different member of the Cupboard.

There are prolonged discussions with Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer; conversations with Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser; umpteen messages with vaccines tsar Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former adviser; to not point out pages and pages of communications with Baroness Harding as she tried to get a grip of the multi-billion-pound check and hint operation. There are even messages with Sir Tony Blair, the previous prime minister.

The communications shed new gentle on virtually all probably the most bitterly contested points of the federal government response, together with the dealing with of care properties, PPE contracts, vaccine coverage and face masks.

Taken collectively, the messages reveal the turmoil inside Downing Road and the Division of Well being and Social Care as an infection charges spiralled and ministers and their advisers flailed round attempting to determine reply.

They expose the worry and frustrations of a vacillating prime minister as he lurched from optimism and lockdown scepticism to pessimism and lockdown zealotry; the behind the scenes battles to determine the testing and get in touch with tracing methods required to sort out the virus; the political complications related to geographic and demographic variations in case charges; the best way the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon ran rings around No 10; and all method of different minor and main triumphs and errors.

Because the strain on politicians and policymakers mounted, tempers frayed. Because the inhabitants was imprisoned and the sick lay dying, ministers and political operatives clashed egos, indulged in petty turf wars, sniped about their very own colleagues and obsessed about how they appeared within the media.

WhatsApp messages will not be topic to Freedom of Data requests and they might not essentially have been conscious of the opportunity of the correspondence ending up within the public area. In any case, most of these concerned had been too preoccupied by the battle to save lots of lives to fret about what anybody would possibly assume later.

Not unreasonably, Hancock was selective about how a lot of all this appeared in his book. His account doesn’t purport to be goal – as Harry and Meghan would possibly say, it’s simply his fact. To his credit score, he typically leaned in direction of disclosure, even when he knew it might ruffle feathers.

Nonetheless, all types of fascinating WhatsApp messages had been omitted – generally to spare his personal blushes, generally to spare these of others, usually simply because we had been constrained by house. Much more delicate materials was faraway from the manuscript on the eleventh hour underneath strain from the Cupboard Workplace. Authorities officers went by way of the draft line by line, as they’re entitled to do when former Cupboard ministers write about their time in workplace quickly after stepping down. This painstaking course of culminated in virtually 300 requests for deletions and amends on numerous grounds, together with some fretting about diplomatic relations and – in a handful of circumstances – nationwide safety. 

To his credit score, Hancock pushed again exhausting. Following tortuous negotiations, we had been capable of save rather a lot, however on sure issues we had been compelled to provide manner. A method or one other, quite a lot of materials that’s overwhelmingly within the public curiosity and pertinent to the general public inquiry was suppressed.

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