‘Project Fear’ authors discussed when to ‘deploy’ new Covid variant
Matt Hancock’s plan to ‘frighten the pants off’ the public to ensure compliance with lockdown measures exposed in leaked WhatsApp messages
Matt Hancock wanted to “deploy” a new Covid variant to “frighten the pants off” the public and ensure they complied with lockdown, leaked messages seen by The Telegraph have revealed.
The Lockdown Files – more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages sent between ministers, officials and others – show how the Government used scare tactics to force compliance and push through lockdowns.
In another message Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, said that “the fear/ guilt factor” was “vital” in “ramping up the messaging” during the third national lockdown in Jan 2021.
The previous month, Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, appeared to suggest in one message that a new strain of Covid that had recently emerged would be helpful in preparing the ground for the looming lockdown, by scaring people into compliance.
In a WhatsApp conversation on Dec 13, obtained by The Telegraph, Damon Poole - one of Mr Hancock’s media advisers - informed his boss that Tory MPs were “furious already about the prospect” of stricter Covid measures and suggested “we can roll pitch with the new strain”.
The comment suggested that they believed the strain could be helpful in preparing the ground for a future lockdown and tougher restrictions in the run-up to Christmas 2020.
Mr Hancock then replied: “We frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain.”
Mr Poole agreed, saying: “Yep that’s what will get proper bahviour [sic] change.”
The discussion came two days after Mr Hancock was informed of the emergence of a new variant – known as alpha or the Kent variant, in Dec 2020. A surge in cases later led to the effective cancellation of Christmas on Dec 19.
Mr Hancock expressed his worry that talks over Brexit would dominate headlines and reduce the impact, and probed Mr Poole for his media advice. “When do we deploy the new variant,” asked Mr Hancock.
During the pandemic, the Government was accused of scaremongeringbut it was denied, with Mr Hancock’s department saying such accusations were “misleading”.
Among the latest Lockdown Files’ disclosures, The Telegraph can reveal messages that suggest Boris Johnson veering between lockdown sceptic and zealot, with the then prime minister wondering out loud two days after the introduction of the second national lockdown in Nov 2020: “What’s the data like today? Tory narrative that we panicked too soon etc.”
The messages also show the behind-the-scenes animosity shown towards Lord Stevens of Birmingham, the then chief executive of NHS England. Mr Hancock declared in one message to an adviser: “He needs to know he is massively f—--g up.”
In another, he said “Removing SS [Simon Stevens] will be a massive improvement.”
Mr Hancock also tried to “persuade” Lord Stevens to quit in Jan 2020, just a few days after the first cases of Covid-19 had been detected in the UK, the Lockdown Files show.
In further developments, it was revealed that Rishi Sunak, when he was chancellor, described Dominic Cummings’s reign as Mr Johnson’s chief adviser as “a nightmare” that he hoped “we never repeat”.
The latest from The Lockdown Files also revealed:
- How Mr Hancock accused Michael Gove of making a “play” for his jobafter promising to reduce NHS waiting times
- Ministers tried to have Sir Jeremy Farrar, now the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist, sacked from its main Covid advisory group for voicing criticism of the Government. Mr Hancock branded him a “complete loudmouth”
- Mr Hancock took his mistress to private dinners with his US counterpart – and then later had a ministerial response altered to remove the suggestion he had invited her
The Lockdown Files have cast a light on the Government’s decision-making during the pandemic.
Mr Sunak, now the Prime Minister, has come under pressure over his flagship Eat Out to Help Out scheme, after The Telegraph revealed that Mr Hancock "kept it out of the news" that the restaurant discounts had been driving up Covid cases
The then health secretary and his advisers discussed how Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, had been critical of an impending local lockdown before discussing the new variant.
The WhatsApp messages showed they were worried that Mr Khan was “lining up to being Burnham” - a reference to Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, who had been a thorn in the Government’s side in the autumn over a local lockdown for the North West.
Mr Poole then pointed out that Tory MPs were “furious already about the prospect” over another lockdown, putting Mr Johnson’s administration under considerable pressure.
By the beginning of December, the country had come out of the second national lockdown - a one-month circuit breaker - and entered a tiered system of restrictions that meant different areas of the country were subject to varying measures.
Psychologists have already warned that some Government messaging during Covid, including using alleged “fear tactics” in poster and health campaigns, were “grossly unethical” and that inflated fear levelscontributed to excess non-Covid deaths and increased anxiety disorders.
The exchange was not the only time the former health secretary and other senior officials discussed tactics to frighten the public into compliance.
Six months earlier, in June 2020 – when the UK was coming out of its first Covid lockdown – Mr Hancock and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, appeared pleased that a study on the virus’s spread showing it going in a “positive direction” had not received publicity, while a “gloomy” survey had been picked up by the media.
“If we want people to behave themselves maybe that’s no bad thing,” said Mr Hancock in a WhatsApp message. Sir Patrick appeared to agree, responding: “Suck up their miserable interpretation and over deliver.”
One survey – the Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (React) study from Imperial College London – showed R – the reproduction rate for the virus – had declined to 0.57. Meanwhile, a Cambridge University study in conjunction with Public Health England showed a high transmission rate in some parts of the country, prompting fears of local lockdowns.
Four months later, in Oct 2020, Mr Poole suggested in a group chat that a decision to stop publishing a so-called watchlist of the areas with the highest prevalence of the virus would be helpful to the Government, because it would make every area of the country concerned about the spread of Covid in a second wave.
“It helps the narrative that things are really bad if we don’t publish,” messaged Mr Poole.
In Jan 2021, Mr Case suggested that the “fear factor” would be “vital” in combatting the latest Covid wave during the third lockdown.
Mr Case and Mr Hancock discussed what further measures would be effective, including “more mask wearing” to be mandatory, including “in all settings outside home”.