- By Ione Wells & Jasmine Andersson
- BBC News
Matt Hancock and his staff agonised for hours over whether or not he broke Covid guidance when he kissed his aide, leaked messages in the Telegraph show.
The WhatsApp messages were sent after the Sun newspaper published a photo of Mr Hancock kissing Gina Coladangelo.
His spokesman said there was “nothing new” in the messages and “absolutely no public interest” in publishing them.
“It’s highly intrusive, completely inappropriate and has all been discussed endlessly before,” he added.
The spokesman said the public coronavirus inquiry had been given access to all the messages.
The BBC has not seen or independently verified the messages nor the context in which they were sent.
In another exchange, the former health secretary criticised the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, texting that it was “causing problems” in areas with high rates of Covid cases.
The latest 41-hour WhatsApp exchange details how the ex-health secretary and Ms Coladangelo were left reeling as the revelations unfolded.
The Sun reported that its pictures of Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo, both who were married at the time and each with three children, were taken inside the Department of Health on 6 May 2021.
Their liaison provoked strong fury as it showed that Mr Hancock had broken his own lockdown restrictions, which were introduced to curb the spread of Covid.
As he awaited the publication of the photos, he texted a special adviser, asking: “How bad are the pics?”
Reacting to the video of him and the former aide kissing obtained by the Sun, Mr Hancock then said: “Crikey. Not sure there’s much news value in that and I can’t say it’s very enjoyable viewing.”
The messages show Mr Hancock asked his special adviser at the time Damon Poole to “keep the focus” on Ms Coladangelo’s appointment.
Ms Coladangelo worked as a paid adviser for the government, acting as a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care at the time.
The then health secretary also asked if another minister could emphasise that “no rules have been broken”.
Mr Poole asked Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo to think “really hard” about whether they could have broken any Covid rules.
Referring to the social distancing rule to keep 1m apart from others when 2m was not possible, Mr Hancock said: “Other than obviously the 1m+ I honestly can’t think of any.”
He added: “The worst they can do is ‘kissed before they legalised hugs’.”
But then Mr Hancock asked his adviser to clarify what exactly the rules were at the time of the photograph.
The two of them then exchanged plans for how they could respond to media coverage.
This ranged from acknowledging he “breached the social distancing rules” – which Matt Hancock said he didn’t think he could do, adding, “I think I just went against the clinical advice” – to saying that “no rules were broken”.
In one exchange, Matt Hancock cited social distancing guidance for workers at the time saying that workers should “maintain social distancing guidelines wherever possible”, to which his adviser responded: “Yes, but it was possible. Clearly. From the picture.”
And in a separate published exchange, Matt Hancock sought the advice of the former chancellor George Osborne about a video statement he was due to put out announcing his resignation.
Mr Osborne said it was “good” but suggests he probably wants to “include the apology to your loved ones you have in the letter”.
He eventually resigned over the matter, publishing a video on his Twitter page.
Jo Tanner, a former adviser to Boris Johnson, said that politicians have a tendency to “think they’re a bit superhuman” when they are asked to apologise for their actions.
“People in these roles can be quite bullish… so actually getting them to be human can be quite a challenge,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “They almost think that they’re a bit superhuman and they can get away with it.
“You can see a bit of that in the approach Matt Hancock was taking.”
Eat Out to Help Out row
In a separate leaked conversation, Mr Hancock criticised Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, dubbing it “eat out to help the virus get about”.
The Treasury paid £840m to fund the scheme in August 2020, which offered 50% off food and drink as part of then-Chancellor Mr Sunak’s economic recovery plan after the end of the first Covid lockdown.
In the WhatsApp message exchange from the month of the launch, Mr Hancock said the scheme was “causing problems in our [intervention] areas” – areas that were under additional government restrictions because they had a higher number of Covid cases.
Mr Hancock said “I’ve kept it out of the news, but it’s serious”, in messages to the then Downing Street permanent secretary Simon Case.
Asked by Mr Case whether he had told Mr Sunak this, Mr Hancock replied: “Yes we’ve told Treasury – we’ve been protecting them in the comms & thankfully it’s hasn’t bubbles up.”
He later said he used the scheme and was “thanked by the other diners”.
Jonathan Ashworth, who was shadow health secretary at the time, accused the government of “covering up” the scheme, exacerbating the spread of Covid in his constituency.
The MP for Leicester South tweeted: “They covered it up but the truth is Sunak’s schemes meant more restrictions and a longer Leicester lockdown.” Leicester was the first UK city to be put under local lockdown, with tough restrictions lasting months.
In response to the latest Eat Out to Help Out messages, Mr Hancock said: “There is absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach.
“All the materials for the book have already been made available to the Inquiry, which is the right, and only, place for everything to be considered properly and the right lessons to be learned.
“As we have seen, releasing them in this way gives a partial, biased account to suit an anti-lockdown agenda.”
Meanwhile, the information commissioner has warned that the use of WhatsApp by ministers and officials in Whitehall poses risks for transparency.
Writing in the Telegraph, John Edwards said there was nothing necessarily wrong with the use of WhatsApp but it “exposes how WhatsApp messages were used to discuss and decide key government business during the pandemic”.
He added: “It also underlines the importance of maintaining a public record of these private transcripts for transparency, accountability and lesson learning in the future.
“The risk is that decision-making made via WhatsApp risks being lost from the public record if it is not properly recorded and stored.”
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 our stories on the leaks: