Messages reveal battle over Covid school policy

time:2023-05-31 01:27:17 source:The New York Times

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock tried to bypass Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to have schools closed in December 2020, messages published by the Daily Telegraph suggest.

In other WhatsApp messages released by the paper, Mr Hancock described teaching unions as "absolute arses".

Sir Gavin replied that they hated work.

No 10 said it disagreed, adding Rishi Sunak "hugely values our hardworking teachers who did so much during the pandemic to minimise disruption".

Other leaked messages reported by the Daily Telegraph appear to show:

The leaked messages are among more than 100,000 sent by ministers and officials during Mr Hancock's time as health secretary, which journalist Isabel Oakeshott passed to the paper.

A vocal critic of coronavirus lockdowns, Ms Oakeshott obtained them while helping Mr Hancock write his book, Pandemic Diaries. She has said she broke a legal agreement by releasing the messages because this is "in the public interest".

In a statement, the former health secretary said there was "absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach" because all the material used for his book had been handed to the Covid-19 public inquiry.

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:

He also complained he was the victim of a "massive betrayal and breach of trust" by Ms Oakeshott, and said he was sorry for the impact on political colleagues, civil servants and friends "who worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives".

Earlier a spokesman for Mr Hancock said the latest leaks were like Tuesday night's, providing "partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda".

Schools minister Nick Gibb told BBC Radio 4's Today programme decisions were taken "based on what was in the best interests of children".

"We were always reliant on and followed the advice of the chief medical officer and the evidence that was emerging. Day by day, new evidence was emerging as the scientists were learning about this virus."

It would be up to the public inquiry to decide whether the government made the right decisions, he added.

The BBC has not seen or independently verified the WhatsApp messages, nor the context in which they were sent.

One exchange on 28 December 2020 appears to show Mr Hancock messaging an aide during a video meeting with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss the rising number of Covid cases.

At that point, the plan was for all primary schools in England to return as normal in January, and for the opening of secondary schools to be delayed by two weeks to allow time for mass testing to be set up.

Mr Hancock, who wanted to keep school closed, described Sir Gavin as battling "tooth and nail" to keep them open and "going absolutely gangbusters" over the issue.

"He's freaking out. You can tell he isn't being wholly rationale [sic]... just by his body language," Mr Hancock's aide, Emma Dean, wrote.

"I'm having to turn the volume down," Mr Hancock responded.

In another message, he wrote: "I want to find a way, Gavin having won the day, of actually preventing a policy car crash when the kids spread the disease in January. And for that we must now fight a rear-guard action."

Mr Hancock then contacted Dan Rosenfield, Mr Johnson's chief of staff, to discuss how to "avoid the car crash we have just set up for January".

On 3 January, the prime minister repeatedly insisted that "schools are safe" on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show.

But the next day, hours after pupils returned, he announced the closure of all schools and colleges, as they "may act as vectors for transmission".

Writing for the Telegraph, Sir Gavin said he felt the closure decision "wasn't done for the right reasons" and he considered resigning in protest. He remained as education secretary until September 2021 when Mr Johnson reshuffled his cabinet.

In October 2020, Sir Gavin announced that A-level exams would be delayed by several weeks, a shorter period than some unions had called for.

"Cracking announcement today," wrote Mr Hancock to Sir Gavin. "What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are."

Sir Gavin replied: "I know they really really do just hate work."

Mr Hancock responded with some emojis of a person laughing and another of a dart hitting a bullseye.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told BBC Breakfast the reported comments made by Sir Gavin were "contemptible because we have to remind ourselves that this was an age of extraordinary anxiety".

"The very people who then brought those young people back into school are being described in those snide terms by the former education secretary," he said.

Writing on Twitter following the latest leaks, Sir Gavin said he wanted to "clarify that these messages were about some unions and not teachers".

"I have the utmost respect for teachers who work tirelessly to support students. During the pandemic, teachers went above and beyond during very challenging times," he added.

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