UK health chief’s leaked news revitalizes raw pandemic debate

LONDON (AP) – The coronavirus lockdown has been lifted and face masks are few and far between in the UK these days.

But COVID-19 has made headlines again with leaks of more than 100,000 private messages sent or received by the Secretary of Health as the government scrambles to respond to the new, fast-spreading respiratory virus.

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s words in 2020 have reignited painful debates in a country that has seen more than 182,000 coronavirus deaths. Could some deaths have been avoided if lockdowns came earlier, or have more people suffered because restrictions lasted too long?

The nature of the leak has also caused a storm. Hancock shared his WhatsApp messages with journalist Isabel Oakeshott when they were working on a book called Pandemic Diaries. Oakeshott, in turn, broke the news to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, which published it in a series of front-page articles.

Hancock accused the journalist of “massive treason and breach of trust,” but Oakeshott argued she acted in the public interest.

“This is about the millions of people, each of us in this country, who have been adversely affected by the disastrous decisions to repeatedly lock down this country, often on the flimsiest of evidence for political reasons,” Oakeshott told the BBC.

Hancock said there was no public interest as he had already relayed the messages to a public inquiry into Britain’s handling of COVID-19, due to begin its hearings later this year.

Critics say Oakeshott has a well-known political agenda. She has described lockdowns as a “disaster” and her partner is politician Richard Tice, leader of the lockdown-skeptical Reform Party, formerly known as the Brexit Party.

The Telegraph stories selectively quote from the news to convey the idea that Hancock defied others – including then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who feared severe restrictions.

Steven Barnett, a professor of journalism at the University of Westminster, said the Hancock leak was less about the public interest and more about “promoting an agenda that said the lockdown guidelines were wrong”.

“As is often the case in Britain with print journalism, we get an agenda pushed by a particular newspaper with a very clear view of what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said.

Others said Hancock was naïve in trusting Oakeshott, who has a history of leaking secrets.

In 2019, she revealed leaked memos in which British Ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch called the Trump administration dysfunctional and inept. The White House severed contact with the British envoy and Darroch was forced to resign.

In 2011, Oakeshott wrote a story revealing that Vicky Pryce, an economist married to a legislator, lied to police to let her husband escape a speeding sentence. Oakeshott later turned over her correspondence with Pryce to prosecutors. Both Pryce and her ex-husband ended up in jail.

The Telegraph stories have brought back painful memories for many in Britain, which has had one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in Europe. One article claimed Hancock ignored scientific advice to test everyone entering care homes for COVID-19, a mistake that led to thousands of deaths.

Hancock said the messages were edited in a deceptive manner. He said testing at the time – in the UK and elsewhere – was limited by a lack of capacity.

James Bethell, a former junior health secretary, defended Hancock, saying the messages reflected the confused early days of the pandemic, when officials with incomplete knowledge worked under intense pressure.

“There was a moment when we were very unclear whether pets could transmit the disease,” he told Channel 4 News. “In fact, there was an idea for a moment that we might have to ask the public to eradicate all cats in the UK.”

Lindsay Jackson, spokeswoman for the COVID-19 Survivors for Justice advocacy group, said the leaks showed the importance of families being allowed to question Hancock and other officials during the public inquiry “so that we can have full answers to our questions, which are rightly held.” having to relive the horrors of our loss through exposés.”

The revelations are the latest setback for Hancock, who was forced to resign from the Conservative government in June 2021 after flouting coronavirus lockdown rules by having an affair with an aide – in violation of a ban on different households mixing .

He remains a lawmaker but was suspended by the Conservative Party in November for flying to Australia for several weeks to appear on the TV reality show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.

Hancock apologized Thursday for the impact of the leaks “on the very many people — political colleagues, officials and friends — who have worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives.”

“I will not comment on any further stories or false accusations from Isabel,” he said in a statement. “I will respond to the substance in the right place in the investigation so that we can properly learn all the lessons based on a full and objective understanding of what happened in the pandemic and why.”

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