The latest saga to emerge from the leaked WhatsApp messages between former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials during the pandemic is that he attempted to bypass the Education Secretary, Sir Gavin Williamson, to have schools closed in December 2020. According to The Daily Telegraph, which was passed more than 100,000 messages by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, Mr Hancock described Sir Gavin as battling “tooth and nail” to keep schools in England open, a move he disagreed with.
The BBC has not seen or independently verified the WhatsApp messages nor the context in which they were sent, but a spokesperson for Mr Hancock said the leaks offer “partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda”. In one exchange on 28 December 2020, Mr Hancock appears to have messaged an aide during a video meeting with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss rising Covid cases. At that point, the plan was for all primary schools to return as normal in January, and for the opening of secondary schools to be delayed by two weeks.
Mr Hancock wanted to keep schools closed, and described Sir Gavin as having had to eat “a lot of humble pie” when he failed to persuade the Prime Minister. He then contacted Dan Rosenfield, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, to discuss how to “avoid the car crash we have just set up for January”. Hours after pupils returned to the classrooms on 4 January, the Prime Minister announced the closure of all schools and colleges, as they “may act as vectors for transmission”.
In other leaked messages, Mr Hancock and Sir Gavin discussed a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools in May 2020. That October, Sir Gavin announced that A-level exams would be delayed by several weeks, a shorter period than some teaching unions had called for. Mr Hancock responded with some emojis of a person laughing and another of a dart hitting a bullseye. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said this “sneering exchange” showed “an appalling lack of respect for teachers”.
The leaks also appear to show that an August 2020 change in government policy requiring secondary pupils in England to wear face masks was introduced mainly to avoid a row with the Scottish government. England’s chief medical officer, Sir Chris Whitty, had reportedly been ambivalent about the need for the measure. Following its introduction in Scotland, Mr Johnson asked whether UK government would need to change its stance. A change in the government’s policy was announced that night.
When schools returned after the third lockdown in March 2021, government policy said that a child who tested positive with a lateral flow test should isolate for 10 days, even if they later tested negative with a PCR, a more reliable test. Messages purportedly showed that children who tested positive for Covid-19, but may not have actually had the disease, were sent home anyway because officials did not want to “unpick” a policy that had already been written. Only three weeks later, on 30 March, the policy was indeed “unpicked”, and schools were told that a positive lateral flow test should be confirmed by a PCR.
In conclusion, the leaked WhatsApp messages between former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials during the pandemic have revealed that he attempted to bypass the Education Secretary to have schools closed in December 2020. The messages show disparaging remarks about teachers’ unions and belittling comments towards Sir Gavin Williamson. They also appear to show that an August 2020 change in government policy requiring secondary pupils in England to wear face masks was introduced mainly to avoid a row with the Scottish government. Furthermore, children who tested positive for Covid-19 were sent home anyway because officials did not want to “unpick” a policy that had already been written.