Health minister downplays ‘selective’ news leaks suggesting Hancock rejected care home Covid testing advice – live | Policy

Ministers suggest WhatsApp leak gives ‘limited and sometimes confusing’ impression of Hancock nursing home policy

Helena Whatlyhealth minister, answers an urgent question.

He says Matt Hancock has set ambitious testing goals. “There was never any doubt about the importance of the tests and there was complete agreement on that in every part of the government,” he says.

But he says the government didn’t have the capacity to do mass testing in the beginning.

He says the government has built the largest testing capacity in Europe.

It says “selected excerpts” of WhatsApp conversations give a “limited and sometimes misleading” impression of what happened.

Helen Whately, the health minister, is responding to the urgent question.


She says Matt Hancock set ambitious targets for testing. “The importance of testing was never in doubt, and there was full agreement on that in every part of government,” she says.


But she says at the start the government did not have the capacity to do mass testing.


The government built the largest testing capacity in Europe, she says.


She says “selective snippets” of WhatsApp conversations give a “limited and at times misleading” impression as to what happened.

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That was an unremarkable and easily forgettable PMQs. Neither Keir Starmer nor Rishi Sunak were particularly on form and, among the party leaders, Stephen Flynn probably did best, with a zinger of a question on Brexit. (See 12.16pm.)


Starmer adopted a scattergun approach, going from one issue to another. His questions, crafted to make a point rather than elicit an answer, were fine, but none of them were particularly new or powerful, and because he was trying to cover so much ground, it meant that it was hard to know what his main point was.


At least a couple of times Sunak responded by avoiding the question altogether. Some of his retorts were reasonably effective in debating terms, but he did not “land” a serious message overall. CCHQ is trying hard at the moment to argue that Labour’s policy programme is just a catalogue of “unfunded commitments”. At the election, this will be an important debate. But the CCHQ material is not really getting an audience at all, at the moment. As Starmer pointed out, after the mini-budget, CCHQ has lost credibility on this issue.

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Starmer says the sight of politicians writing books about Covid, or leaking messages, will be “insulting” and a “ghoulish spectacle” to many people. Will the Covid inquiry get the resources it needs to report by the end of this year?



Families across the country will look at this, and the sight of politicians writing books portraying them as heroes will be an insulting and ghoulish spectacle for them.



Sunak says it is an independent inquiry. He says, as a lawyer, Starmer should know the importance of due process. MPs should let it do its work, he says.



Rather than comment on piecemeal bits of information, I’m sure the honourable gentleman will agree with me the right way for these things to be looked at is the Covid inquiry.


There is a proper process to these things, it is an independent inquiry, it has the resources it needs, it has the powers it needs and what we should do in this House is to let them get on and do their job.


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PMQs is about to start.

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Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s chief whip, has said that he thinks the Stormont brake – the mechanism at the heart of Rishi Sunak’s deal to revise the Northern Ireland protocol – will turn out to be “fairly ineffective”.


On Monday Sunak told MPs that the brake was “a powerful new safeguard” that would allow Stormont to block new EU laws.


But Wilson told Times Radio this morning:



Let’s not underestimate the fact that when the EU introduces new laws in the future, it will have an impact on Northern Ireland. And the point of the brake was meant to be to give a means for unionists to oppose that. I think it will have to be used on lots of occasions, though I suspect to be fairly ineffective.



Wilson also said the DUP would not be rushed into deciding whether or not to back the new deal. Asked how long the party would take to come to a decision, he said:



As long as it takes us to get, first of all, the analysis, and secondly, the answers from the government, before we make that decision, that’s the time we’ll take.


But the one thing I’ll say to you is that we will not have a knee-jerk reaction to this deal. It means too much to us. And we have got to give it real consideration.


At the end of the day, we will then come to a conclusion, is this a deal which safeguards the union that safeguards our economy? If it’s not, then we’ll reject it, if we come to a conclusion on balance it does, then we’ll accept it.


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Lord Bethell, who served as a health minister when Matt Hancock was health secretary and is a personal friend, was on the Today programme this morning defending him. Here are the main points.



  • Bethell said Hancock should publish all his WhatsApp messages so that people can judge for themselves whether he acted properly. Bethell said:

  • \n



I certainly think Matt should just publish his WhatsApps and get them out there. Clearly that ship has sailed and I’m very proud of what’s in many of those messages. I think the listeners will see them and admire the effort and hard work that people put into our pandemic response.




  • He said, although the Telegraph reporting implied that Hancock and other ministers conducted important government business via WhatsApp, that was not correct. He said:

  • \n



Formal decision-making is done through paperwork, and we don’t have that in front of us. And that’s why this partial glimpse into the decision-making is so unfortunate because it gives a misleading impression.




  • He said Hancock said the guidance should only mandate testing for people entering care homes from hospital at an early stage in the pandemic because it was not possible to test everyone else. Bethell said:

  • \n



The reality was there was a very, very limited number of those tests …


The thing that held us back was not a dispute about the clinical advice. It was simply the operational ability to deliver tests.




  • Bethell described Isabel Oakeshott as “a terrific journalist” but “not a very good friend”.

  • \n



  • He said that he had deleted messages from his own phone relating to the PPE contracts, and the so-called VIP lane, because his phone was short of space for data. He said:

  • \n



I don’t think that’s odd. Listen, I had an issue with capacity on my phone and there simply wasn’t enough space on my phone for all the WhatsApp messages and I clumsily deleted them.


In retrospect, I regret doing that but that isn’t the sign of a conspiracy… there wasn’t a great conspiracy behind these arrangements.


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The Scottish National party have come in for heavy criticism over lack of transparency after it emerged officials were planning to hold all nine leadership hustings without media access or live-streaming, as a media-free “safe-space” for party members.


All three candidates running to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader – Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf – backed calls to allow media access on Tuesday afternoon, as broadcasters and print journalists came together to challenge the decision amidst fierce criticism from opposition parties.


The party has now said it is working with media outlets, though it remains unclear how the first hustings, taking place in Cumbernauld tonight, will be managed.


The SNP has suggested that one representative from print, television and radio could attend, on a pooled basis.

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If Matt Hancock wants to defend his record on care homes, he will get a chance in the Commons at 12.30pm, because Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker, has granted an urgent question on the topic. Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, has tabled the question. A health minister will respond. Hancock is just a backbencher now, but he can ask a question if he wants and, although questions are meant to be very short, Hancock might get some leeway to go on a bit given that he is leading the news at the moment.


After that there are two statements: one from Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, on an independent public advocate; and another from Andrew Mitchell, the development minister, on aid to Turkey and Syria.

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Tory Brexiters can normally spot what they see as a surrender to Brussels in the blink of an eye. But the European Research Group’s so-called “star chamber” of lawyers could take up to a fortnight to scrutinise Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland protocol deal, Mark Francois said today.


Francois, the ERG chair, told TalkTV that he expected the “star chamber” to produce an assessment “within a fortnight” but he said there was no deadline. He told the station:



It takes as long as it takes because it’s very important all this. But I think Sir Bill (Cash) and his team are going to try and do this if they can within a fortnight and as I say they will make their conclusions publicly available for all to see.


But because of the importance of this, if it takes a little bit longer than that, then it takes a little bit longer.



Francois also said an “important consideration” would be whether the EU would be able to retaliate if the UK were to use the Stormont brake.

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In December last year Isabel Oakeshott wrote an article for the Spectator about co-writing Matt Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries with him in which she said he was “surprisingly inclined to disclosure”. Hancock did not keep a real diary during the pandemic, and so the book, which is written in diary form, was compiled with extensive reference to contemporary records, including WhatsApp messages. She said that she did not expect him to reveal everything, but that he “shared far more than I could ever have imagined”.


Hancock, of course, will be bitterly regretting their collaboration now that Oakeshott has decided to share the material with Daily Telegraph, and, via the paper, the world at large. In an article explaining why she has done so, she says that the public deserves to know the truth about what happened and that the public inquiry is going to take too long. She says:



Announced in May 2021, our public inquiry – which has already cost up to £85 million – has yet to begin formal hearings. Alarmingly, it does not appear to have any specific timeframe or deadline.


We all know what this means – it will drag on forever. After all, the investigation into Bloody Sunday took 10 years and was nowhere near as daunting a task.


The hopelessly open-ended nature of the formal process makes these WhatsApp files all the more important. Amid the ever-present threat of another pandemic, perhaps more deadly than the last, we emphatically cannot afford to wait until the mid-2030s or even beyond to learn lessons. Those who have information in the public interest need to put it out there right now.



The Telegraph’s first story from the document trove accuses Hancock of ignoring medical advice on care homes. In her article Oakeshott barely mentions this, and that might be because she thinks that broadly what he did was right. In her Spectator article in December she set out what she learned about the rights and wrongs of the government’s Covid policy when researching the book, and this is what she said about care homes.



Hancock is more sensitive about this subject than any other. The accusation that he blithely discharged Covid-positive patients from hospitals into care homes, without thinking about how this might seed the virus among the frail elderly, or attempting to stop this happening, upsets and exasperates him. The evidence I have seen is broadly in his favour.


At the beginning of the pandemic, it was simply not possible to test everyone: neither the technology nor the capacity existed. Internal communications show that care homes were clearly instructed to isolate new arrivals. It later emerged that the primary source of new infection in these settings was in any case not hospital discharges, but the movement of staff between care homes. Politically, this was very inconvenient: Hancock knew he would be accused of ‘blaming’ hardworking staff if he emphasised the link (which is exactly what has now happened).


He is on less solid ground in relation to the treatment of isolated care-home residents and their increasingly desperate relatives. His absolute priority was to preserve life – however wretched the existence became. Behind the scenes, the then care home minister Helen Whately fought valiantly to persuade him to ease visiting restrictions to allow isolated residents some contact with their loved ones. She did not get very far. Internal communications reveal that the authorities expected to find cases of actual neglect of residents as a result of the suspension of routine care-home inspections.


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Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s former Brexit negotiator has fired a shot at Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland protocol deal, admitting it will “help” but will not remove EU law from Northern Ireland, my colleague Lisa O’Carroll reports.

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Frost made his comments in a column in the Daily Telegraph. Here’s an excerpt.



Most of our political class is choosing not to look too closely at any of this because they are tired of the whole problem. Some even argue, as the prime minister did yesterday, that it is actually better for Northern Ireland to be subject to the Protocol than fully part of the UK. But just as some overclaiming by Boris Johnson in 2019 came back to haunt him, so it will for Rishi Sunak in 2023, because moving goods to Belfast will still not really be like moving goods to Birmingham.


A fairer statement of the position would be “this deal softens the application of the Protocol, but does not remove it. It’s the best we could persuade the EU to do because we weren’t prepared to use the protocol bill and the EU knew it”. That doesn’t mean the deal shouldn’t go ahead. It will help. But it won’t remove the underlying tensions, even if the DUP does decide to go back into Stormont. It leaves the government still only partly sovereign over all its territory. Just as in 2019, that is a bitter pill to swallow.


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Good morning. Covid has soared backed to the top of the news agenda, after the Daily Telegraph published a front page story claiming Matt Hancock ignored medical advice on testing people going into care homes in the early days of the pandemic, when he was health secretary. Hancock says the story is “completely wrong”, based on a partial use of confidential material that is in effect stolen, and published to support the Telegraph’s anti-lockdown agenda.


Hancock is also considering suing the paper for libel.


Here is the key allegation from the Telegraph’s splash.



Matt Hancock rejected the chief medical officer’s advice to test for Covid all residents going into English care homes, leaked messages seen by The Telegraph reveal.


Prof Sir Chris Whitty told the then health secretary early in April 2020, about a month into the pandemic, that there should be testing for “all going into care homes”. But Mr Hancock did not follow that guidance, telling his advisers that it “muddies the waters”.


Instead, he introduced guidance that made testing mandatory for those entering care homes from hospital, but not for those coming from the community. Prior to the guidance, care homes had been told that negative tests were not required even for hospital patients. The guidance stating that those coming in from the community should be tested was eventually introduced on Aug 14.



The front page of tomorrow's Daily Telegraph:

'Hancock rejected Whitty's advice on care home tests'#TomorrowsPapersToday

Read the story here:

Sign up for the Front Page newsletter

— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) February 28, 2023


In response, a spokesperson for Hancock said that the guidance only mandated testing for people entering care homes from hospital because the capacity was not available to test people entering care homes from the community as well at that point. The spokesperson said:



Having not been approached in advance by the Telegraph, we have reviewed the messages overnight.


The Telegraph intentionally excluded reference to a meeting with the testing team from the WhatsApp. This is critical, because Matt was supportive of Chris Whitty’s advice, held a meeting on its deliverability, told it wasn’t deliverable, and insisted on testing all those who came from hospitals.


The Telegraph have been informed that their headline is wrong, and Matt is considering all options available to him.



The spokesperson also accused the Telegraph of attacking him to promote the paper’s anti-lockdown agenda. The spokesperson said:



It is outrageous that this distorted account of the pandemic is being pushed with partial leaks, spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda, which would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives if followed.


What the messages do show is a lot of people working hard to save lives.


The full documents have already all been made available to the inquiry, which is the proper place for an objective assessment, so true lessons can be learned.


Those who argue there shouldn’t have been a lockdown ignore the fact that half a million people would have died had we not locked down. And for those saying we should never lock down again, imagine if a disease killed half those infected, and half the population were going to get infected – as is happening right now with avian flu in birds. If that disease were in humans, of course we’d want to lockdown.


The story spun on care homes is completely wrong. What the messages show is that Mr Hancock pushed for testing of those going into care homes when that testing was available.


Instead of spinning and leaks we need the full, comprehensive inquiry, to ensure we are as well prepared as we can be for the next pandemic, whenever it comes.


The Telegraph story is wrong, based on partial, spun leaks – and they did not approach Matt before publication.



The Telegraph obtained its material from Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist who co-authored his Pandemic Diaries. She was shown his WhatsApp messages subject to a non-disclosure agreement, but she has said it is in the public interest for them to be be published. This is not the first time she has turned against someone having collaborated with them on a book; it happened to Arron Banks, the Ukip and Leave.EU donor whose Brexit memoirs she ghost wrote.


What makes this story particularly concerning, not just for Hancock but for the government as a whole, is that it is not a one-off. The Telegraph says that it has more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages from Hancock and that it will be publishing a series of revelations from them in the coming days. It has set up a dedicated web page to the story – always a worrying development, as those caught up in its MPs’ expenses investigation will recall.


I will post more on this through the day. But we have also got PMQs, and ongoing discussion about the Northern Ireland protocol deal.


Here is the agenda for the day.


10.15am: Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy PM, gives evidence to the Lords constitutional affairs committee.


12pm: Rishi Sunak faces Keir Starmer at PMQs.


2.45pm: Kemi Badenoch gives evidence to the Commons women and equalities committee in her capacity as minister for women and equalities. (She is also business secretary.)


I’ll try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.


If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.


Alternatively, you can email me at

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Key events

Aaron Bell (Con) accuses Labor of being “opportunist” in the way it attacks Covid government policy “in hindsight”. Whately he says he is “100% right”.

Kieran Mullan (Con) claims Labor has misled the public about the government’s progress in dealing with the pandemic. He says Labor should apologize for this. Labor said the UK had the worst death toll in Europe, but its results were not the worst and were broadly in line with those of France and Germany.

Whately That’s right. He says the country needs to reflect on what happened.

Whately she says if Labor were in power, she is confident that, like the government, she would try to make the best decisions in the light of the information available.

Daisy Cooper (Lib Dem) why Jacob Rees-Mogg was able to get a Covid test sent to his home by courier when there was a shortage of tests in the country.

Whately she says she needed a test for her family and used the same app as everyone else.

Peter Bone (Con) says Labor wants to rewrite history. In those days, people did not know what was good and what was bad. One of Matt Hancock’s messages read, “Tell me if I’m wrong.” He says the Covid investigation needs to consider it. But can he check in earlier?

Whateley he says there was “enormous uncertainty” at the time.

As for the timing of the investigation, it’s not under the control of ministers, he says.

Sir Oliver Heald (Con) says what we see today is a “process through the media.”

Whately That’s right. He says a public inquiry should be allowed to do its job.

Whately replies to Kendall.

He says the government initially had to cut back on testing. He says the courts have supported decisions made by the government about who to prioritize.

It says published WhatsApp messages are selective. Advice was given elsewhere. She added that the evidence had been handed over to the investigation.

He quotes from an email sent after a WhatsApp exchange reported by the Telegraph saying that anyone entering a care home should be tested “as much as capacity allows”.

Ministers have done everything they can to protect people, including the most vulnerable, he says.

She says Kendall was happy to support the government’s actions at the time. This is not the right time for political games, he says.

Liz Kendall, the shadow welfare minister, asks why Matt Hancock ignored a doctor’s order to test all people entering care homes. He says the relatives of the people who died will be “appalled” by his attempt to rewrite history.

Ministers suggest WhatsApp leak gives ‘limited and sometimes confusing’ impression of Hancock nursing home policy

Helena Whatlyhealth minister, answers an urgent question.

He says Matt Hancock has set ambitious testing goals. “There was never any doubt about the importance of the tests and there was complete agreement on that in every part of the government,” he says.

But he says the government didn’t have the capacity to do mass testing in the beginning.

He says the government has built the largest testing capacity in Europe.

It says “selected excerpts” of WhatsApp conversations give a “limited and sometimes misleading” impression of what happened.

PMQ – quick verdict

It was unremarkable and easily forgotten PMQ. Neither Keir Starmer nor Rishi Sunak were particularly fit, and among party leaders, Stephen Flynn arguably did best by asking the Brexit question. (See 12:16.)

Starmer took a scattergun approach, moving from one problem to another. His questions, designed to attract attention rather than to be answered, were fine, but none of them were particularly new or powerful, and because he was trying to cover so many issues, it meant it was hard to tell what he was talking about. what’s wrong with him. was.

On at least a few occasions, Sunak answered by completely dodging the question. Some of his responses were quite effective in the debate, but overall he didn’t “land” a serious message. At the moment, CCHQ is trying hard to argue that Labor’s political agenda is just a catalog of “unfunded commitments”. This will be an important debate during the elections. But the CCHQ material is not gaining an audience at all at the moment. As Starmer noted, after the mini-budget, CCHQ lost credibility on this issue.

Keir Starmer received an unexpected endorsement from Isabel Oakeshott.

I'm delighted @Keir_Starmer just called for the covid inquiry to report by end of this year. As @RishiSunak said, the public inquiry has the resources it needs and the powers it needs. What it doesn't have is a deadline! Which suits certain people very well #TheLockdownFiles

— Isabel Oakeshott (@IsabelOakeshott) March 1, 2023


I’m delighted @Keir_Starmer just called for a covid investigation by the end of this year. How @RishiSunak he said, the public inquiry has the resources and powers it needs. What is missing is a deadline! Which suits some people very well #TheLockdownFiles

— Isabel Oakeshott (@IsabelOakeshott) March 1, 2023

Joanna Czeresnia (SNP) says she and Sunak both had to clean up the constitutional mess caused by Boris Johnson. Mr Sunak said Northern Ireland would benefit from being in the EU’s single market. If NI can have a special status, why can’t Scotland?

Sunak says Scotland has a special status – “within Britain”.

Craig Tracey (Con) asks if stopping illegal crossings remains a priority?

Sunak says the government needs to do more. “As soon as the bill is ready,” it will be published, he says.

cat smith (Lab) asks about a hospital that is to be one of the government’s “40 new hospitals.” But no development is happening, he says.

Sunak says, in addition to 40 hospitals, there are 90 improvements. He says the government supports the NHS.

Sarah Champion (Lab) says that 79 people died on smart highways. He says the government is still developing them. These are “death traps”. Why is it justified?

Sunak says that last year the implementation was stopped. Safety is the priority, he says.

Virginia Crosbie (Con) asks if the government will develop more nuclear power.

Sunak says the government is committed to building more nuclear power plants, and Crosbie’s Ynys Môn constituency would be a good place to develop.

Stephen Flynn, the leader of the SNP at Westminster, tells Sunak yesterday access to the single market was unique, exciting and attractive. Why Sunak denies it to the rest of the country.

Sunak says it’s disappointing that Flynn is playing politics with this. Northern Ireland occupies a special place in Great Britain.

Flynn says Sunak was more positive about the single market than Keir Starmer.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that access to the EU single market would be a good thing for business. Of course, this runs counter to the Labor leader who said in December that access to the EU’s single market would not boost economic growth.

Does it hurt the prime minister to know Labor believes in Brexit more than he does?

Sunak says it’s about putting in place the right mechanisms for Northern Ireland, not about the macro issues around Brexit.

Philip Dunne (Con) welcomes the agreement on the NI protocol and asks if the UK will rejoin the Horizon programme.

Sunak says the UK will continue to work with the EU in many areas.

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