For anyone interested in the political handling of the pandemic, Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp message was explosive.
So far, much of our understanding of the decision-making and handling of government science advice has been based on official meeting minutes, committee evidence, or rumours.
But are they evidence of a minister failing to act on scientific advice?or they are In the words of the former health ministerRecording “many people worked hard to save lives” every minute?
It is undisputed that COVID infection in nursing homes was the leading cause of death during the first wave of the pandemic. Between mid-March and mid-June 2020, nearly 20,000 nursing home residents died with COVID recorded on the death certificate.
So when on April 14, according to sources, Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty called for testing of all people sent to care homes, it was really urgent.
So why did Mr Hancock decide to only test people admitted to nursing homes from hospitals, as suggested in the WhatsApp message, rather than the wider community?
An important factor is testing capability. Test and Trace to process nearly 4 million COVID tests per week by 2022.
But on April 14, 2020, that number was less than 75,000. At the same time that the first walk-up testing centers were opening, a large-scale community testing system was just being established.
How was WhatsApps leaked?
Five key communication
Hancock under mounting pressure – stay tuned for latest news
Surely it is wise to focus limited testing resources where the greatest benefit is likely to be gained, and to test only those who are discharged from hospitals to nursing homes?
This would explain Matt Hancock’s response on WhatsApp: “I don’t think the community’s commitment adds anything and muddies the waters.”
While testing capacity was limited at the time, those involved believed it had grown fast enough to call for testing of anyone sent to a nursing home.
“Testing capacity is growing dramatically,” said Professor Alan McNally, the scientist responsible for establishing the first government lighthouse laboratory in Milton Keynes.
It started testing on March 26. Professor McNally said that by April 8, his lab was performing about 2,000 tests a day. But by the end of April, they were fully automated and doing 40,000 to 50,000 tests a day.
It is clear from his message that Mr Hancock is determined to meet his self-set target of 100,000 COVID tests per day set on 2 April 2020.
On the 14th, after the news of “disturbing the muddy water” came out, the pressure naturally increased.
But at the time, Deloitte, the audit firm contracted by the government to oversee testing, was counting any processed COVID tests toward the 100,000 goal. This includes testing from any source, whether it’s a hospital, community testing, or a lighthouse lab.
One suggestion is that moving testing to the community rather than a new walk-in center or hospital could delay reaching the 100,000 goal due to slightly longer processing times for community testing.
Speculation aside, a lack of clear policy plagues the testing program: “We’ve created incredible things in terms of testing, but we’ve never had the policy to use that capacity most effectively,” says Professor McNally.
More revelations will be revealed soon
Given the massive cache of WhatsApp chats obtained by The Telegraph – they claim 100,000 messages – there will be more revelations. The next few weeks could be challenging for Mr Hancock.
At today’s preliminary hearing, the inquiry’s lead counsel, Hugo Keith KC, explained that the legally binding “Rule 9” request had been sent to an exhaustive list of witnesses, including the prime minister, ministers, civil servants and scientific advisers.
“These documents include, but are not limited to, informal group communications such as text messages and WhatsApp group messages, private messages and emails or contemporary diary entries or notes,” he said.
Baroness Hallett, chair of the inquiry, dismissed suggestions that the inquiry would last “decades”, saying: “I am sure the inquiry will conclude and make recommendations as quickly as possible.”