Telegraph has Obtained 100,000+ WhatsApp Messages from UK Officials Revealing “Devastating Details About the Pandemic Response that had Until Now Remained Secret”
The telegraph has obtained 100,000+ WhatsApp messages from UK officials revealing “devastating details about the pandemic response that had until now remained secret.”
They’re calling it “The Lockdown Files” and plan to release more information over the coming days.
Teachers looking for ‘excuse’ not to work during pandemic, said Gavin Williamson
Education secretary and Matt Hancock also hit out at unions at time when Government was praising efforts of school staff
Teachers were looking for an “excuse” not to work during the pandemic, the then education secretary said.
Sir Gavin Williamson criticised both school staff and unions for their response to coronavirus, saying that the latter “really do just hate work”.
Sir Gavin made the comments in a discussion with Matt Hancock as school staff prepared for the re-opening of classes in May 2020.
By this point, schools had been effectively shut for two months with only vulnerable children and those whose parents were key workers allowed to attend in person. Ministers and teachers were planning for lessons to begin returning in June.
At the time there was a shortage of personal protective equipment and Sir Gavin said he had originally been told by officials that they could get this through the local resilience forums, composed of representatives from local public services, including the emergency services, and local authorities, but that the Department of Health had backtracked.
He contacted Mr Hancock to ask him to help unblock the request as it “will be very small demand as most schools will already have it and it is only aimed at the situation if a child is clearly ill”.
Mr Hancock agreed to help, noting that it was a “tiny amount” and it would only be needed when there were “no alternatives”.
Fear of putting teachers at risk
By this point, the battle between ministers and teachers had been going on for months.
Unions and schools had repeatedly said that they did not want to put teachers or vulnerable children at risk, and made the point that many staff were attending classes in person for the children of key workers.
Before the Government announced that they would close schools on March 18, some had already made the unilateral decision to shut their doors while others cancelled classes because of staff shortages due to self-isolating.
Over the summer of 2020 exams were cancelled and Sir Gavin was forced to abandon a controversial algorithm which had determined grades.
Relations between the Department for Education and schools reached a low point and Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, accused Sir Gavin of “ignorance and inaction”.
Unions’ string of demands
By the autumn, unions had made a number of demands including additional teachers, smaller classes and better access to tests for staff and students. Some were calling for exams to be cancelled for the second year running.
On the evening of Oct 1, the Telegraph released a front page confirming that Sir Gavin was planning to delay A-level exams for a few weeks.
At almost 10pm Mr Hancock got in touch with his Cabinet colleague, writing: “Cracking announcement today. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are”
Sir Gavin responded: “I know they really really do just hate work”
To which Mr Hancock replied:
The private comments were at odds with the public statements of politicians, including Boris Johnson, who said in June 2020 that teachers had “responded to the unprecedented challenged of coronavirus” and would be getting a pay rise to “recognise their efforts on the front line”.
Sir Gavin also wrote to teachers in September 2021 thanking them for their “outstanding work” and “incredible efforts throughout the pandemic to provide the very best face-to-face and remote education for children”.
Following the publication of the messages, the former education secretary on Wednesday night tweeted that his comments had been “about some unions and not teachers”.
He added: “I have the utmost respect for teachers who work tirelessly to support students.”
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: “Tonight’s revelations are exactly like last night’s. These are partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda.
“They show Matt was focused throughout on saving lives. The right place for a full assessment is the (official Covid) inquiry.”
Famous names react to The Telegraph’s Lockdown Files revelations
Piers Morgan tweets congratulations on ‘astonishing scoop’, while Carol Vorderman among says revelations are ‘shocking reading’.
Piers Morgan said the revelations were ‘utterly damning’
Piers Morgan and Carol Vorderman are among the famous names to have hailed The Telegraph’s Lockdown Files scoop since the first in a series of articles were published on Tuesday night.
Morgan, the journalist and Talk TV host, congratulated The Telegraph on an “astonishing scoop”, while Vorderman, best known as a former presenter of Countdown, said the disclosures made for “shocking reading”.
Vorderman wrote: “It makes for shocking reading. The many thousands of care home deaths which might easily have been prevented, the school closures, face masks, the casual nature of it all.”
Among others reacting to the revelations were:
Paul Frew, the DUP MLA for North Antrim, who wrote: “This is massive & I’m absolutely delighted, WhatsApp aren’t considered open to FOI requests. @IsabelOakeshott has done this country a tremendous service, well done @Telegraph for running it. At last journalism doing service in public interest instead of government’s re lockdown.”
Nicky Campbell, the BBC Radio 5 Live broadcaster, wrote: “It’s the Tory-supporting Telegraph with the leaks reported by every other broadcast organisation. Should these leaks of Hancock’s WhatsApp messages not be discussed? Are they not news? The inquiry could take 10 years – that’s the argument of the Tory-supporting Telegraph.”
Darren Grimes, the broadcaster, wrote: “The lockdown inquiry will be a whitewash; @IsabelOakeshott has done the nation a great service in releasing the #lockdownfiles.”
Christine Hamilton tweeted:
Sky News: “Matt Hancock’s explosive WhatsApp messages lay bare the political handling of the pandemic.”
Sam Tarry, the Labour MP, wrote: “The #lockdownfiles proves what we already knew that this govt’s claim that they put a “protective ring” around care homes was a barefaced lie. Hancock ignored the Chief Medical Officer’s advice, and as a result, people died. Shameful.”
Paul Brand, the UK editor of ITV News, said: “This appears to be pretty damning for Matt Hancock. Care homes have always said they felt the Government acted recklessly.”
The Lockdown Files lift the curtain on government by WhatsApp
Revelation of messages shows astonishing extent to which ‘virtual’ snap decisions affecting millions of lives were taken on the hoof.Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock meeting with key advisers including Dominic Cummings and Prof Sir Chris Whitty during the pandemic. Many of their conversations took place over WhatsApp
“Let’s use this when we need to move fast,” said Matt Hancock in one of the high-powered WhatsApp groups he created at the beginning of the pandemic, “so we’re all on the same page at all times”.
Now the former health secretary’s WhatsApp messages have made it into The Telegraph, he may well live to regret that decision.
What The Lockdown Files show is the astonishing extent to which key government decisions were made on the instant messenger app – with its distinctive double blue tick read receipts.
The Telegraph has obtained more than 100,000 messages between Mr Hancock and other ministers and officials. That’s 2.3 million words that were pinging around various top-level groups as decisions were taken that had an unprecedented effect on the lives and civil liberties of the public.
While Mr Hancock has rightly pointed out that the WhatsApp messages only reveal a fraction of a much wider cross-governmental conversation on coronavirus policy, even Downing Street has been forced to admit WhatsApp has become “part and parcel of modern government”.
As the Prime Minister’s press secretary explained when asked by The Telegraph on Wednesday whether Rishi Sunak uses WhatsApp: “A range of ways in which government officials and others communicate are used, that’s not unusual, that’s the same for the Prime Minister.”
His official spokesman added: “The rules set out that ministers are able to discuss government business over text messages or WhatsApp, that’s entirely within the rules, understandably part and parcel of modern government.
“The requirement is that substantive decisions are communicated to their private office.”
While there was undoubtedly a need to expedite decision-making during the first wave of the pandemic, when the picture was rapidly changing, The Lockdown Files do raise legitimate questions about the structure of government at a time when Britain faced its biggest crisis since the Second World War.
Conversations were held to a remarkable extent on WhatsApp, with snap decisions seemingly taken on the hoof at various junctures.
In Boris Johnson’s informal style of government, mobile phone messaging often appeared to supplant Cabinet meetings as a forum for deciding Britain’s future.
As Bim Afolami, the Tory MP for Harpenden and Hitchin, pointed out as the story broke on Tuesday night – government by WhatsApp is not without its pitfalls.
“People have to be incredibly careful what they put on emails and WhatsApp messages and text messages to each other,” he told TalkTV.
He said that is not to “hide what you’re doing” but because: “When things are happening quickly in politics, you just constantly are thinking on your feet and that isn’t necessarily your best analysis, that isn’t necessarily your best self.
“In days gone by when people would write memos, it meant they had to really consider decisions properly and then they’d write them, they’d have more formal meetings where things were written up.”
He said that “meant you actually got better decision-making because you’re forced to slow down”, adding: “I think that what we’re seeing is the real problem of people making decisions on the fly at 2am on WhatsApp.”
Tory MP Bim Afolami says a “real problem” exists in government of people making decisions “on the fly at 2am on Whatsapp”, after 100,000 messages sent between Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials during the Covid-19 pandemic were leaked.@tnewtondunn | @BimAfolami pic.twitter.com/h7uIJr8mKw
— TalkTV (@TalkTV) February 28, 2023
Sir Tony Blair, the former prime minister, was criticised for presiding over “sofa government” where meetings would frequently be held with close advisers and supporters outside the formal apparatus of government.
The Lockdown Files suggest this was taken a step further during the pandemic – with some decisions taken “virtually” and only rubber-stamped by the full Cabinet, which was often kept out of the discussion process altogether.
Naturally, it raises fears that sometimes cavalier decisions were made on the basis of a gut feeling rather than the evidence-led approach normally associated with policies that lead to the closure of schools and businesses, as well as confining people to their homes.
What this extraordinary cache of messages lays bare is the extent to which the thinking on WhatsApp groups turned into groupthink as decisions purporting to “follow the science” faced little scrutiny outside of the participants added by admin.