Many jaws dropped over the weekend after an astounding investigation by The Telegraph showed multiple politicians and advisors engaged in what has been described as a “Project Fear,” in which top advisors spoke of how to use “fear and guilt” to force people to comply with Covid lockdowns.
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock is at the centre of the investigation, after journalist Isabel Oakeshott made public the more than 100,000 messages he sent via Whatsapp concerning Covid-19 policy.
The former Health Secretary was far from alone in his goal of scaring the public into compliance, with other politicians and advisors, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, showing an increasing detachment from those who were locked down in their homes.
Some of the most extraordinary exchanges include Hancock telling his advisor, after the more contagious Alpha variant started spreading: “We can frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain”, and another cabinet member telling Hancock that “the fear/guilt factor” was “crucial” to keep people locked down.
Incredibly, journalist Isabel Oakeshott was freely given the messages by Mr Hancock while they were collaborating on his memoir. Speaking to Sky News at the weekend, the Sunday Times journalist said it became clear to her that there was “really no other option” but to put the troubling messages “out there”.
“Can you imagine any journalist worth the name ‘journalist’ that sat on material like that?” she told the news outlet.
In the eyes of Oakeshott, the messages show a total detachment within the government from the real suffering of those who became isolated, especially those in care homes who were kept apart from their families.
We take a look at the top five most excruciating revelations from the Lockdown Files:
1. Matt Hancock’s plan to ‘frighten the pants off everyone’ about Covid
During the course of the Covid crisis, officials and ministers grappled with how to ensure the British public complied with ever-changing lockdown restrictions, perceived by many as oppressive. One key tactic, as evidenced in the Whatsapp exchanges, was fear.
In a Whatsapp message with his media advisor, Matt Hancock had a suggestion.
“We frighten the pants off everyone,” he wrote.
In what has to be one of the most startling texts, back in December 2020, he told his advisor that “we [can] frighten the pants of [sic] everyone with the new strain”. This was sent during the time the more contagious Alpha variant started spreading in December 2020. With many people frightened, Hancock thought this was a good thing, sending a message on 13 December in which he wondered when “do we deploy the new variant”. Just five days later, Boris Johnston cancelled Christmas.
JUST IN: New leaked messages show UK Health Minister Matt Hancock planning to “deploy the new variant” in COVID messaging to “frighten the pants out of everyone” in order to “get proper behavior change” in the public’s compliance with lockdown measures. pic.twitter.com/czU9AZS18z
— Michael P Senger (@MichaelPSenger) March 4, 2023
Just as life appeared to be opening up again, from 20 December, the whole of the UK was ordered to return to lockdown under level four restrictions.
As reported by the BBC at the time: “On Christmas Day a maximum of eight people from three households will be allowed to mix indoors. From Boxing Day the whole of mainland Scotland will be in the country’s toughest level of restrictions for at least three weeks”.
2. ‘Project Fear’: Using “fear and guilt” to scare the public into compliance
Hancock was not the only one who expressed a desire to frighten the public into compliance. The Whatsapp messages, given to The Telegraph, show how several members of the then health secretary’s team took part in what has been described as a kind of “Project Fear” in which they discussed how best they could use “fear and guilt” to make people obey tough lockdowns.
In another not so subtle exchange, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case told Hancock, at an early point in the third UK lockdown, that the “fear/guilt factor” was “crucial” in ensuring people continued to obey restrictions.
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Government vehemently denied accusations of scaremongering (with Hancock’s department claiming such accusations were “misleading), the deeply unethical manipulation and utilisation of fear is clear for all to see in The Lockdown Files. In the damning conversation which took place in January 2021, Case said that fear would be “vital” in “ramping up the messaging. Case also told Hancock that the Nightingale Hospitals would be full within days.
“I suspect London Nightingale coming into use will be a big public moment. Especially as I guess it will be full [within] a couple of days (based on current data,” Case told Hancock via Whatsapp. This did not come to pass, with Nightingale admissions reaching a maximum of 57 a day, with a capacity of 4,000 beds.
In another worrying exchange between Hancock and Case, Hancock told him that the police needed to get a grip on mandating government lockdown restrictions. In a development which has been described as disconcerting, the head of the civil service asked the health secretary: “Who is actually delivering enforcement?”
3. ‘When do we deploy the new variant?’ Hancock asked
The use of so-called ‘nudge’ tactics to frighten the people of Britain into compliance with regards to lockdowns and vaccination has previously been the target of fierce criticism. Last year, a group of psychologists branded the behaviour of civil servants and scientists in the government “grossly unethical”.
Last June, experts claimed that the UK government’s ‘psychological strategies’ to manipulate the public’s behaviour may backfire and cause long-term damage.
Behavioural scientists spoke out during the summer, with one telling The Telegraph (one of the few British outlets to question the government’s lockdown approach) that the problem with fear is that “you can’t turn it on and off like a tap”.
It does appear, however, that this is something Hanock and his team attempted to do. In December 2020, Hancock expressed concern that talks over Brexit would dominate news headlines and reduce the impact of the emergence of the alpha variant. Probing his media advisor Damon Poole for information, he asked: “When do we deploy the new variant”.
Mr Poole wrote back, warning that the government needed to be “cautious” – adding that the “big risk with the variant” was that “right-wing papers go for a renewed push for let it rip on the basis the vaccines strategy is undermined”
“That’s why we reassure on the vaccine,” Hancock said in response.
There should be a criminal inquiry into Matt Hancock.
People took their own lives through fear and through the thought of a Covid filled future.
People lost their loved ones and businesses.
We warned you that the Government were nudging and using fear & you called us names. pic.twitter.com/Qihd66jWHu
— Adam Brooks 🇬🇧 (@EssexPR) March 5, 2023
Just one week after those messages were sent, Hancock appeared on national television to spread the message that the variant was escalating.
“The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control,” he told the BBC.
“This news about the new variant has been an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year, and it’s important for everybody to essentially act like they might have the virus. That’s the way that we can control it together,” he also told the national broadcaster.
In another interview with Sky News he warned Covid cases in the “tier four areas” had “absolutely rocketed”. “So we’ve got a long way to go to sort this,” he said.
He seemed to use the opportunity to promote the vaccine, telling Sky News:
“Essentially, we’ve got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe … I think given how much faster this new variant spreads it is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out”.
4. Journalists failed to ask questions about the impact of lockdowns
A survey conducted in Spring 2020 by Imperial College into Covid infections in the community – named the React programme – was led to eminent Armenian-British surgeon, academic and researcher Lord Darzi. It provided “positive” news for Matt Hancock and his team who were shaping public policy.
In an exchange between Hancock and Patrick Vallence, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, in June 2020, Hancock asks Vallence if he had seen the findings from the study, which showed “decreasing prevalence” of Covid during May and an R number (the reproduction rate of the virus) of just 0.57, meaning the rate of transmission was also falling at this point in the pandemic.
Vallence writes in response: “Ok seen it now. Very good and consistent with the ONS study. All pointing in the same positive direction”.
Hancock replies: “Yep. Just done presser where the media interest is only in the gloomy Cambridge survey [face palm emoji].
At first, judging by the emoji, it appears Hancock is frustrated that journalists are focusing on the ‘gloomy’ Cambridge survey rather than the more positive findings. However, in the messages that follow, he seems to find the upside:
Hancock writes: “But, if we want people to behave themselves maybe that’s no bad thing”.
To which Vallance replies: “Agree, suck up their miserable interpretations and over deliver”.
The revelation in these messages is that the government had three sources of evidence about the spread of Covid – the React programme, the ONS survey and the Cambridge study. The Imperial study was in line with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, which both showed transmission falling.
However, when the media chose to focus on a separate report from Public Health England and Cambridge University – which showed a high transmission rate in some parts of England, resulting in speculation lockdowns would follow, Hancock came to the conclusion: “That’s no bad thing”.
The press chose to focus on the ‘gloomy’ narrative – with many journalists so blinded by their belief in lockdowns that they failed to ask basic questions about the potentially devastating ramifications on children, the vulnerable, the elderly, businesses, and society itself.
The exchange evidenced how rather than exercising critical thinking and a desire, at minimum, to possess some sort of curiosity about the consequences of the Health Secretary’s announcements, which drove the UK into a perpetual state of lockdown, many top journalists only spurred Hancock on, evidencing the industry’s clear shortcomings.
5. Ministers joked about members of public who had to isolate in “shoebox” hotels
In one set of messages, which have understandably been a particular source of outrage to the British public, Case and Hancock mocked members of the public who had to isolate in “shoebox” quarantine hotels.
In one troublingly cruel exchange, Case and Hancock seemed entertained at the misfortune of those impacted by the policy they enforced, making jokes about people arriving in the UK during the Covid pandemic being locked up in quarantine hotels.
In one exchange with Case from February 2021, Hancock said they were “giving big families all the big suites and putting pop stars in the box rooms”.
“I just want to see some of the faces of people coming out of first class and into a premier inn shoebox,” Case replied to Hancock.
A few days later, Case asked the Health Minister how many had been “locked up”.
“Any idea how many people we locked up in hotels yesterday?”
Hancock replied: “None. But 149 chose to enter the country and are now in Quarantine Hotels due to their own free will!”
“Hilarious,” Case wrote back.
Hancock was later forced to resign in June 2021 after being caught on camera having an affair with an aide, breaching his own Covid restrictions.
Responding to the leaked messages, Mr Hancock said that all the materials for his book, ‘The Covid Diaries’ had been made available to the official COVID-19 inquiry.
While he apologised for the “impact” on the very many people who “worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives,” he hit out at what he described as a “massive betrayal” by Ms Oakeshott.
“I am hugely disappointed and sad at the massive betrayal and breach of trust by Isabel Oakeshott,” he said. “There is absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach,” he added.
Issuing a statement on the leaks, meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last week that the official Covid inquiry was the “right way” to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic, rather than relying on “piecemeal bits of information”.