The Perfect Enemy | Matt Hancock texts reveal concern at plans to relax Covid isolation - BBC
September 15, 2023

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Matt Hancock was concerned that relaxing Covid isolation rules would imply ministers had been “getting it wrong”, leaked messages suggest.

It appears the former health secretary was told in late 2020 that scientific advisers wanted to try replacing 14-day quarantine for confirmed contacts with five days of testing.

He replied that the idea “sounds very risky” and “like a massive loosening”.

Mr Hancock’s spokesperson said the story was based on “partial evidence”.

He said this latest message exchange showed Mr Hancock was “in favour of protecting the public and saving lives” through the pandemic.

The BBC has not been able to independently verify the messages, between Mr Hancock and England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty.

The texts are the latest release from more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages leaked to the Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott.

The leaked exchange between the two men took place on 17 November 2020, when confirmed contacts of Covid cases in England had to isolate for 14 days.

Prof Whitty is shown telling Mr Hancock that the UK’s chief medical officers, as well as Sage, the government’s group of scientific advisers, were “in favour” of a pilot “with presumption in favour of testing for 5 days in lieu of isolation (alternative 10 days isolation)”.

He added that the pilot was to “check it works” – whilst the MHRA, the medicines regulator, had “not yet signed off for self use”.

In the exchange published by the Telegraph, Mr Hancock replies that the idea “sounds like a massive loosening”.

Prof Whitty then says that scientific modelling “suggests it’s pretty well as good”.

In a reply, Mr Hancock says he is “amazed” – adding that “this sounds very risky and we can’t go backwards”. He asks whether allowing people to test for 10 days would be “a safer starting point”.

‘Worry people’

Prof Whitty replies that “we could push to 7 [days]” but “the benefits really flatten off after 5”.

Mr Hancock is then shown to reply: “So has the 14 day isolation been too long all this time?”

The chief medical officer then replies that a 14-day isolation period is “marginally safer than 10” – but at the expense of reduced compliance, meaning “it probably balances out”.

Mr Hancock replies that cutting the isolation period to seven days would be “huge for adherence” but any lower than that would “worry people and imply we’d been getting it wrong”.

Prof Whitty then says he will “go back” to the chief medical officers, adding, “I think they will be sympathetic to this”.

The isolation period for close contacts was reduced to 10 days across the UK the following month.

Some exemptions for double-jabbed critical workers were introduced seven months later, in July 2021, following disruption to businesses and public services.

Self-isolation for all fully-vaccinated contacts was dropped the month after that.

The WhatsApp messages were handed to the Telegraph by Ms Oakeshott, who had been given them by Mr Hancock for the purposes of co-writing his book, Pandemic Diaries. She has argued there is a public interest in publishing the messages.

A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said the latest message exchange showed he was “in favour of protecting the public and saving lives” – and “that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone”.

“Throughout the pandemic Mr Hancock acted to save lives – as the independent inquiry will show,” the spokesperson added.

“We should wait for that to ensure we get a proper understanding of what happened, not be misled by these biased accounts based on an anti-lockdown agenda and partial evidence.”


The WhatsApp leaks

A collection of more than 100,000 messages sent between former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic have been obtained by the Telegraph. Here are some of our stories on the leaks: