War of words erupts over Covid Whatsapp messages

An extraordinary war of words has erupted over events at the centre of government during the Covid pandemic after more than 100,000 of Matt Hancock’s Whatsapp messages were leaked.

As he fought for his political reputation, the health secretary claimed through a spokesperson that the messages had been “doctored” and “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.

It was “flat wrong” to say Mr Hancock had rejected advice to test all residents going into English care homes, the spokesperson added.

The messages were leaked by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott and published in The Telegraph after she was handed them by Mr Hancock while working on his Pandemic Diaries memoir. Mr Hancock is said to be considering legal action against The Telegraph. A source close to Mr Hancock said: “She’s broken a legal NDA [non-disclosure agreement]. Her behaviour is outrageous.”

The government was also accused of hiding behind the official inquiry after it refused to answer questions over the delivery of a Covid test to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home despite a shortage.

Downing Street conceded there was “significant public interest” in claims officials had couriered the test for one of the cabinet minister’s children.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is now under pressure to fast track the official inquiry into how Covid was handled, to provide answers to questions raised by the leaked messages, which also suggested:

The former Tory health secretary Stephen Dorrell said: “The big question for Rishi Sunak is, do we need to speed the process up? And the answer is, yes we do. The government has it in its power to fast track it, if it means changing the terms of reference.”

He also accused Boris Johnson of making a “political choice” to delay the inquiry so “the conclusion lands on the other side of an election”.

“If we don’t want everything dragged out though messages, item by item, the public inquiry is the proper place for ministers to explain their actions,” he said.

Tory MP Peter Bone also suggested the inquiry should “report earlier”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked Mr Sunak to give the inquiry resources to report by the end of the year as he blasted the “ghoulish spectacle” of Tory ministers parading themselves as Covid heroes.

The government insists the inquiry is independent and it has no say on its timeline. However, a probe into former cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi was completed soon after Tory MPs urged the prime minister to fast track it.

Labour said No 10 was “more than capable of answering questions now” about the Rees-Mogg test.

Mr Sunak’s spokesperson refused to be drawn, saying: “On all these issues clearly there is significant public interest, that’s why we have established an independent public inquiry that will look to establish the facts. It’s not for me to look at individual claims put out.”

But Labour said that “to hide behind the inquiry at this stage seems bizarre” adding “the government is more than capable of answering those questions now”.

In September 2020, during a severe backlog in testing, messages suggest an adviser to Mr Hancock helped get a test sent to Mr Rees-Mogg’s address.

The aide messaged Mr Hancock to say the lab had “lost” the original test for one of the then Commons leader’s children, “so we’ve got a courier going to their family home tonight”.

That same month there was a backlog of 185,000 Covid tests waiting to be processed across the UK. The rules in place at the time also meant people had to isolate until they received a negative test.

Jacob Rees-Mogg says he did not ask for a test to sent

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