March 8, 2023 - 6:48pm

Over the last week, the Daily Telegraph has been publishing messages from a vast cache of WhatsApps between former health secretary Matt Hancock and his advisers. The messages reveal the true story behind the UK Government’s decisions throughout the Covid era. When viewed in their totality, the picture is one of spin above science and political ambition taking priority over public interest. 

The messages were originally obtained by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who was given them by Matt Hancock under non-disclosure agreement. Oakeshott’s decision to leak the internal communications has put her at the centre of a media storm where she has been widely disparaged. But might the messages themselves give us an idea as to why so many mainstream outlets wouldn’t want the public to see them?

Isabel Oakeshott joined UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers in the studio to find out.

On the polarised response to her story:

It depends on what side of the divide you sat on in terms of your response to the pandemic. So if you were sceptical about the Government’s response to the pandemic, you are absolutely delighted to see all this information that probably confirmed so many things that you already suspected about what was going on behind the scenes. If you are entrenched in your view that the only way to respond to the threat posed by this virus was to shut down society […] you’ve got a very vested interest in continuing to argue that you must have been right and these messages don’t tell us anything that much new. 

On public support of lockdowns during the pandemic:

The government seemed to be trapped in a kind of doom loop in which they terrified the population, then polled the population to see if measures that they presented as being ‘to protect’ the population were popular. And hey presto, yes, those measures were popular, because people were terrified. And accordingly, their opinion ratings or approval ratings went up. And so this became a kind of ever-reinforcing circle.

On the vilification of the Great Barrington Declaration signatories:

Those scientists and other experts suffered such reputational damage, they were smeared. There was a real operation to discredit those people and to present them as cranks, to say that there was something wrong with them. And also to impugn their motives.

On the tone of the messages between ministers:

They drank their own Kool Aid. They began to think it was funny to lock people up and to use the powers of the state to force people into tiny hotel rooms and to gleefully observe. […] Pretty distasteful, isn’t it, to see the machinery of government and the key operators in it enjoying their power so much.

On her working relationship with Matt Hancock:

I think that there were advantages for him in the relationship. I am good at what I do, he got a fantastic book out of it. […] He could not possibly have written that book by himself or anything like it by himself. So it was a transactional arrangement, in his mind.

On revelations about the UK vaccine rollout:

There was a continuing tension between Matt Hancock and his medical and scientific advisors over what pace they could go at. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were always very clear that no corners could be cut. They kept hammering home that message. But Matt always wanted to push further and faster: he would have seen that as his job and his responsibility. He just wanted to accelerate everything. I think he felt that if there were some unfortunate consequences of that for a very small number of people, then that was a price worth paying for the much greater good.

Thanks to Isabel for joining us in the UnHerd studio.