Need to ‘frighten the pants’ off public with new Covid strain, said Hancock

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Matt Hancock told aides he wanted to “frighten the pants off everyone” to ensure compliance with Covid-19 restrictions, in leaked messages which reveal discussions over when to “deploy” details of a new strain.

The latest set of WhatsApp exchanges, published in The Sunday Telegraph, show how Mr Hancock and others discussed how to use an announcement about the Kent variant of the virus to scare the public into changing their behaviour.

The messages, among more than 100,000 messages passed to the Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, show that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in stopping the spread of the virus.

The leak has already revealed Rishi Sunak and Mr Hancock complaining about Dominic Cummings’ “nightmare” tenure in Downing Street, as well as the then health secretary’s repeated concerns that the then chancellor’s signature Eat Out To Help Out initiative was contributing to the spread of Covid-19.

The latest messages show the approach taken by Mr Hancock and others to Government communication at various stages during the pandemic.

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

A woman at Westminster Underground Station in London wearing a face covering (James Manning/PA)
A woman at Westminster Underground Station in London wearing a face covering (James Manning/PA)

“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.

The conversation, on December 13, came amid concerns about the rapid spread of the virus in south-east England.

Mr Hancock announced that a new Covid-19 variant had been identified in the UK on December 14.

London and south-east England were to enter a new Tier 4 alert level, it was announced on December 19, 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 6 2021.

Messages from January 10 show Mr Hancock and the Cabinet Secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance.

Simon Case (Aaron Chown/PA)
Simon Case (Aaron Chown/PA)

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus – Mon Jan 11, 2021
The NHS Nightingale facility at the ExCeL Centre, London (Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA)

He has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”.

In a statement this week, Mr Hancock said that all the materials for his book have been made available to the official Covid-19 inquiry.

Ms Oakeshott has said the disclosures are in the public interest.

Some of the messages also offered an insight into Boris Johnson’s thinking at various stages of the pandemic.

For instance in August 2020, he warned that government messaging was becoming “mangled”, referencing “private focus groups”.

“Folks my private focus groups telling me our messaging now so mangled as to be totally incomprehensible.

“We need big reset and simple themes pumped over the airwaves especially on social distancing and how many people you can have in your house etc,” he wrote.

A spokesman for the former prime minister said: “It is not appropriate to comment on these leaks.

“The public inquiry provides the right process for these issues to be examined.”

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