WhatsApp clashes over Covid schools policy were sent 'in the heat of the moment', minister tells LBC

2 March 2023, 00:48 | Updated: 2 March 2023, 09:08

Matt Hancock was involved in a behind-the-scenes clash with then-education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson
Matt Hancock was involved in a behind-the-scenes clash with then-education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson. Picture: Alamy/LBC

By Kieran Kelly and Chris Samuel

WhatsApp messages sent between government ministers over Covid school policy were sent in the "heat of the moment", a schools minister has told LBC.

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Former health secretary Matt Hancock was involved in a behind-the-scenes clash with then-education secretary Gavin Williamson over moves to keep classrooms open during the Covid pandemic.

Mr Hancock battled with Sir Gavin in late December 2020 and suggested it was “mad” that he was trying to keep classrooms open.

He then fought against Sir Gavin to persuade the government to shut schools in January as a wave of the new Covid variant was at its height.

Messages between the pair also revealed claims from Sir Gavin that teaching unions "really really do just hate work".

Read More: 'A massive betrayal': Matt Hancock says he's 'hugely disappointed' as he apologises to colleagues over private messages leak

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, schools minister Nick Gibb said the former education secretary "holds teachers in the highest regard".

When asked about leaked WhatsApp messages between government ministers on Covid policy, Mr Gibb said: "Those WhatsApp messages were sent in the heat of the moment.

“I think he was talking about the union but I don’t think he believes that either…I know (Gavin) holds teachers in the highest regard and so do I.

"We know how hard they work and we know how hard they worked in the pandemic. They were keeping schools open, don’t forget, for vulnerable children."

Schools Minister dismisses Gavin Williamson's remarks as 'heat of the moment'.

After initially losing the argument in a Cabinet meeting, Mr Hancock reportedly told an aide: “The next U-turn is born.”

He added: “I want to find a way, Gavin having won the day, of actually preventing a policy car crash when the kids spread the disease in January. And for that we must now fight a rearguard action.”

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In a statement, Matt Hancock said: "I am hugely disappointed and sad at the massive betrayal and breach of trust by Isabel Isabel Oakeshott.

"I am also sorry for the impact on the very many people - political colleagues, civil servants and friends - who worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives.

"There is absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach."

Matt Hancock in June 2021
Matt Hancock in June 2021. Picture: Alamy

The messages then showed Mr Hancock immediately contacting Dan Rosenfield, who was then Boris Johnson's chief of staff.

He started an attempt to have schools closed before children returned from the winter break, providing him with his private email address.

As it turned out, after many younger children had returned to classrooms for only a single day, the PM announced that schools would be closed with exams cancelled as a national lockdown came into effect. Schools weren't to reopen until March 8.

In an article for the paper, Sir Gavin revealed that he considered resigning over the decision to close schools.

“Looking back now, I wonder whether I should have resigned at that point," he wrote.

"I certainly thought long and deeply over whether I should have gone then. I just felt so personally upset about it.”

When schools did reopen, there was also a row over whether children should have to wear face masks in the classroom and follow the 'rule of six'.

Children were ordered to wear masks after Boris Johnson was told it was "not worth an argument" with Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The then Prime Minister went ahead with the controversial policy despite Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty saying there were "no very strong reasons" to do so.

No10 reportedly did not want to change the rule of six for meetings to include children during lockdown either, even though there was “no robust rationale”.

Pupils forced to wear face coverings in lesson
Pupils forced to wear face coverings in lesson. Picture: Alamy

It comes after it was also revealed in the leaked messages that Mr Hancock had rejected the advice of Sir Chris Whitty to test all residents going into care homes a month into the pandemic.

The MP denied the "distorted account" with a spokesman alleging the messages leaked by journalist Isabel Oakeshott after she worked on his Pandemic Diaries memoir have been "spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda".

A spokesperson for Mr Hancock added the messages had been "doctored".

The investigation claims chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the then health secretary in April 2020 there should be testing for "all going into care homes".

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty. Picture: Alamy

But the messages suggest Mr Hancock rejected the guidance, telling an aide the move just "muddies the waters", and introduced mandatory testing for those coming from hospitals.

Mr Hancock expressed concerns that expanding care home testing could "get in the way" of the target of 100,000 daily coronavirus tests he was desperate to hit, the investigation said.

A spokesman for Mr Hancock said the former health secretary is "considering all options" in response to the leak, with a source close to him telling the PA news agency: "She's broken a legal NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Her behaviour is outrageous."

The spokesman said: "Having not been approached in advance by the Telegraph, we have reviewed the messages overnight.

Sir Gavin revealed that he considered resigning over the decision to close schools.
Sir Gavin revealed that he considered resigning over the decision to close schools. Picture: Alamy

"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.

"This major error by Isabel Oakeshott and the Telegraph shows why the proper place for analysis like this is the Inquiry, not a partial, agenda-driven leak of confidential documents."

Ms Oakeshott, who has described lockdowns as an "unmitigated disaster", said she was releasing the messages because it would take "many years" before the end of the official Covid inquiry, which she claimed could be a "colossal whitewash".

"That's why I've decided to release this sensational cache of private communications - because we absolutely cannot wait any longer for answers," she said.