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Ex-UK health chief defends record after COVID messages leak


LONDON (AP) — Britain’s former health minister on Wednesday denied wrongdoing after a newspaper published extracts of private messages he sent in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Daily Telegraph said the exchanges show that then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock ignored scientific advice to test everyone entering nursing homes for COVID-19. Hancock said the WhatsApp messages had been deceptively edited, with key lines omitted to give a “distorted account.”

Hancock said he had wanted to test everyone entering care homes for the coronavirus, but the U.K. lacked the capacity at the time, so priority was put on testing people being discharged from hospitals into the homes.

“The messages imply Matt simply overruled clinical advice. That is categorically untrue,” said a statement released through a spokesman. “He went as far as was possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives.”

Like many countries, the U.K. had little capacity to test for coronavirus when the pandemic began. The virus spread rapidly through nursing homes in the initial months of the country’s first outbreak in 2020, leading to around 20,000 deaths.

Britain is due to hold a public inquiry into authorities’ handling of the pandemic, but the hearings have yet to begin.

Hancock’s statement said “the right place for this analysis of what happened in the pandemic is in the inquiry.”

The Telegraph said it obtained 2.3 million words from Isabel Oakeshott, a journalist who helped Hancock write a memoir. Oakeshott, a critic of the stringent lockdowns imposed during the pandemic, defended leaking the messages, saying she had done it to avoid a “whitewash” of the crisis.

James Bethell, who served as a junior health minister under Hancock, said “the reality was there was a very, very limited number" of coronavirus tests in the first months of the pandemic.

“The thing that held us back was not a dispute about the clinical advice. It was simply the operational ability to deliver tests,” Bethell told the BBC.

Hancock resigned from the government in June 2021 after breaching social distancing rules that were then in effect by kissing an aide with whom he was having an affair in his office at the Department of Health.