The U.K.’s Covid consensus is unraveling. Once established in spring 2020, the narrative that beating the virus required locking down, closing schools, wearing masks, and social distancing went largely unchallenged for three years. Anyone bold enough to ask questions was labeled dangerous.
Two weeks ago, this began to change decisively.
When the pandemic struck, the U.K.’s health secretary was Matt Hancock, an unremarkable, 41-year-old career politician who soon became the most powerful man in the country. On his word, families were divided, businesses closed, and children kept out of classrooms. Fast forward to June 2021: after CCTV footage emerged of him kissing a colleague (actually his mistress) in his ministerial office, in breach of his own social distancing rules, Hancock resigned. Since then, he has tried to reinvent himself. He now makes Tik Tok videos, appeared on the popular TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and published his Pandemic Diaries.
Of course, Hancock did not write the book himself. He employed a journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, to do the work for him. Hancock handed her his entire cache of WhatsApp messages—some 100,000 texts—by way of background research. But after the book’s release, Oakeshott decided that it was in the public interest to breach the nondisclosure agreement that she had signed and give Hancock’s messages to the Daily Telegraph. For the past fortnight, the newspaper has published transcripts of Hancock’s many exchanges with ministers and officials in 2020 and 2021.
The WhatsApp haul reveals the casual, almost flippant, manner in which decisions were taken to scare, manipulate, and deceive the British public. The messages show that unprecedented powers to restrict people’s liberty were, at times, employed for political convenience rather than to save lives. They show how the decision-makers put their egos above the lives and livelihoods of everyone else.
Perhaps most damning of all are messages in which Hancock and his aides discuss deploying “fear and guilt” as a way to scare people into complying with lockdown restrictions. We saw the results of their efforts in posters warning people “Don’t Kill Granny” alongside television advertisements featuring hospital patients on ventilators with the slogan: “Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules.” Britain became “the most frightened nation in the world,” as Lionel Shriver documented in 2021. It is stunning to read messages in which Hancock calmly suggests that “We frighten the pants off everyone.” His query, “When do we deploy the new variant?,” in a discussion about how to “roll the pitch” for a third national lockdown in January 2021, is even more disturbing now that the consequences of the restrictions on education, physical and mental health, and the economy are becoming clear. But at the end of 2020, the goal of achieving compliance seems to have become almost entirely detached from the threat that Covid posed to most people’s lives.
Hancock’s texts show the extent to which government ministers lied to the British public. Most blatant are the lies about care homes. “Right from the start, we have tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes,” Hancock declared in May 2020. His messages reveal, however, that he ignored the chief medical officer’s advice and ordered hospitals to discharge patients directly into care homes—even patients who had tested positive for Covid. His messages reveal the thinking behind this disastrous decision. Hancock worried that testing care-home residents might “muddy the waters” and get in the way of his much-publicized target of ensuring 100,000 Covid tests a day. This left the most vulnerable people most exposed to the virus. Tragically, 45,000 care-home residents in England and Wales died from Covid, all while being offered reassurance about “protective rings.”
The leaked messages expose the lie that justified almost all lockdown restrictions: government ministers were “following the science.” Over the course of the pandemic, “science” was put beyond question. It was to be obeyed. Now we know that “following the science” was often a cover for political expediency.
For young children, lockdown meant that playgrounds closed. But just weeks after Covid first emerged, scientists knew the virus was airborne. The chances of a child becoming ill from a climbing frame were negligible. Likewise, children were included in England’s bizarre “rule of six” mandate that limited the number of people that could meet at any one time, meaning large families could not see relatives, even outdoors. Hancock’s messages show that ministers knew there was no “robust rationale” for this decision, but they went ahead for “comms reasons.” Likewise, decision-makers knew that “no very strong reasons” existed for masking children in schools. But masks were imposed because Hancock “didn’t want an argument” with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who had introduced such a ruling north of the border.
Pledging deference to the science meant that those who questioned lockdown restrictions could be branded irrational and safely ignored. The decision to brook no dissent emerged early on. Before becoming prime minister, Rishi Sunak revealed that he was ordered not to discuss the potential harms of lockdown: “The script was, oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy.” Lockdown critics outside of government were monitored and, where possible, censored. On the WhatsApp chat, one of Hancock’s advisers asked if Nigel Farage, a high-profile political commentator, could be “locked up.” This hostility to disagreement extended to entire countries. In one message, Hancock opines that he is sick of the “fucking Sweden argument.” He demands bullet points showing “why Sweden is wrong” for not locking down. That probing alternatives to lockdown might lead to better outcomes for the U.K. was seemingly never considered.
The general public soon emerged as a subject of contempt. At one point, visitors returning to the U.K. from abroad were forced to quarantine in hotels for ten days. Rather than expressing concern about the problems this policy might cause people, a leading civil servant declared: “I just want to see some of the faces of people coming out of first class and into a [budget hotel] shoe box.” Hancock went on to express frustration that police were being too lenient with lockdown rule-breakers. He wanted less sympathy with people moving about in public—perhaps escaping a stressful home environment or just desperately in need of exercise or company—and more punishments. But no matter how bad things got, Hancock managed to keep an eye on his own career prospects. Even in the middle of a crisis, he found time to comment on his photo in a newspaper: “I think I look great.”
At this point, most of the British public would settle for never having to see Matt Hancock again, but before we can bury bad memories, it is vital that we learn from how our leaders handled this pandemic. One important lesson, surely, is never to accept that science is “settled” and simply needs to be “followed.” We need to avoid dividing the population between good people who are obedient and bad people who ask awkward questions and refuse to comply. Not only was this division morally reprehensible but also, as we have been freshly reminded, openness to challenge is a vital aspect of any free society—and it often improves outcomes, to boot. A more nuanced—and yes, rational—approach to lockdown could have saved lives, kept children in school, and maintained a semblance of economic normality.
The British political and media class shows little desire to learn lessons, however. Rather than directing their outrage at Matt Hancock and his WhatsApp buddies, they are cross with Isabel Oakeshott for breaching journalism’s code of ethics, revealing a source, and breaching a nondisclosure agreement.
One reason that mainstream journalists are choosing to condemn the messenger and not the message is that, during the pandemic, they so consistently argued a pro-lockdown position. When the British media criticized the government during the pandemic, it was to demand even tougher restrictions. Ministers, including Hancock, learned to use this to their advantage. In one exchange, Hancock complains about the media showing interest “only in the gloomy Cambridge survey” and not other studies that showed Covid to be in retreat. He quickly spots his mistake and counters, “But, if we want people to behave themselves maybe that’s no bad thing.”
The release of Hancock’s WhatsApp messages is so overwhelmingly in the public interest that concerns about journalistic ethics seem trivial by comparison. Oakeshott demonstrated her integrity in releasing the messages. Her colleagues should welcome the opportunity to scrutinize the thinking and decision-making of those who led the U.K. through such a momentous period. Around the world, the response to the pandemic led to a crackdown on civil liberties, most notably free speech. It is vital that we interrogate what happened, and why.
Photo by Rob Welham/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images