Matt Hancock probably meant releasing the news story about Alpha by deploying the new strain - sars2.net

Contents

Background information

Matt Hancock served as the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from 2018 until 2021. In 2023 over of his 100,000 WhatsApp messages were shared in a release that were called the "lockdown files". In WhatsApp messages that were sent on December 13th 2020 UTC, Hancock told his media and PR advisor Damon Poole "We frighten the pants of everyone with the new strain", and Hancock asked "When do we deploy the new variant": [https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/04/project-fear-covid-variant-lockdown-matt-hancock-whatsapp/; read with https://github.com/iamadamdev/bypass-paywalls-chrome]

People have interpreted Hancock's message to mean that they would've deliberately released a new strain of COVID. However I believe by deploying the new variant, he meant releasing the news story about Alpha to the media.

News stories about the WhatsApp messages

A Telegraph article about the WhatsApp messages said the following: [https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/04/project-fear-covid-lockdown-files-matt-hancock-whatsapp/; bypass paywall with https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-sunday-telegraph/20230305/281487870559182]

Mr Hancock then replied: "We frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain."

The discussion came two days after Mr Hancock was informed of the emergence of a variant - known as Alpha or the Kent variant, in December 2020.

An article by Sky News said: [https://news.sky.com/story/hancock-told-aides-he-wanted-to-frighten-the-pants-off-everyone-to-ensure-compliance-with-covid-rules-leaked-messages-say-12826216]

Matt Hancock told aides he wanted to "frighten the pants off everyone" to ensure compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.

That is the latest revelation from more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages leaked to the Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who was given them by the former health secretary while they were collaborating on his memoir.

The messages show Mr Hancock and others discussed how to use the Kent variant of the virus to scare the public so they would obey the rules.

[...]

"When do we deploy the new variant?" Mr Hancock said.

The new variant was publicly identified on 14 December and five days later Boris Johnson announced that families would no longer be able to meet for Christmas.

On 6 January 2021, England entered a third lockdown.

Coverage about Alpha in December 2020

On December 14th UTC which was the day after Hancock sent the Whatsapp messages, he talked to the UK parliament about the Alpha strain: "I'd like to update the house on a new development about the virus itself. Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the southeast of England. Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We've currently identified over a thousand cases with this variant - predominantly in the South of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas, and numbers are increasing rapidly." [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaHCQD157aQ&t=2m11s]

On December 19th UTC, Hancock posted a tweet where he used the phrase "the new variant" to refer to Alpha: [https://twitter.com/MattHancock/status/1340332784934641665]

The scientific evidence on the new variant of #coronavirus is sobering.

If you are in Tier 4, from tomorrow you must stay at home to protect the NHS & save lives.

Thank you to everyone playing their part in the national effort.

On December 20th UTC, Daily Mail published an article about Alpha titled "Matt Hancock warns mutant Covid strain is 'out of control'". [https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9072291/Tory-MPs-demand-clear-exit-strategy-nightmarish-cycle-lockdowns.html] The same day BBC also published an article about Alpha titled "Covid: WHO in 'close contact' with UK over new virus variant". [https://www.bbc.com/news/world-55382212]

More widespread coverage about Alpha in the media started on December 22nd UTC, when BBC published an article titled "Covid: New variant found ‘due to hard work of UK scientists’" and The Guardian published an article titled "Here's what we know about the new variant of coronavirus". [https://www.bbc.com/news/health-55413666, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/22/new-variant-coronavirus-genomic-sars-cov-2-pandemic]

The term Alpha wasn't introduced until May 2021. The article by The Guardian referred to the variant as "1.1.7" (which was the Pango designation B.1.1.7 without the B), but the articles by the BBC and Daily Mail didn't refer to it using any specific term but they just called it "the new variant" like Hancock.

There's only a few tweets which match the term B.1.1.7 until December 20th UTC, when several people posted a link to a report about Alpha that had been posted on the Virological forum on December 18th UTC. [https://twitter.com/search?q=%22B.1.1.7%22+until%3A2020-12-20&src=typed_query&f=live, https://virological.org/t/preliminary-genomic-characterisation-of-an-emergent-sars-cov-2-lineage-in-the-uk-defined-by-a-novel-set-of-spike-mutations/563]

The first tweet which matched the phrase "Kent variant" was posted on December 19th UTC. [https://twitter.com/search?q=%22kent%20variant%22%20until%3A2020-12-20&f=live]

So at the time when Hancock sent the WhatsApp messages, terms like "B.1.1.7" or "Kent variant" were not yet widely known so it made sense for him to just refer to Alpha as "the new variant". At the time Alpha was the main emerging variant in the UK that people were concerned about, so it wouldn't have been ambiguous which variant he meant.

Who is Damon Poole

In an appendix which describes the people featured in Hancock's book, there's this entry for Damon Poole: "Replaced Jamie Njoku-Goodwin as media special adviser in October 2020. Previously head of broadcast for No. 10. Trusted by all, soon established himself as sage adviser on all communications and media relations."

On a list of top 50 special political advisors, who are known "spads" in the UK, Damon Poole was listed on rank 35: "Another former Vote Leaver, 'Damo' Poole was very close to Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain and was sent by the latter to Health to be Matt Hancock's media Spad after the departure of the well-regarded Jamie Njoku-Goodwin. A street fighter like his mentor Cain, Poole was head of research at Change Britain, a pressure group set up by prominent Vote Leave members, and was head of broadcasting at Number Ten during numerous boycotts of programmes including Today and Good Morning Britain. The rugby-mad Spad is also a former account director at Brunswick public affairs firm." [https://macemagazine.com/spads/damon-poole/]

So would Hancock's PR and media advisor have high-enough clearance to know about top-secret bioweapon deployment plans?

Usage of the word deploy

In web development, deploying a website means publishing it from a local development environment to a production environment where it is available to its users, so in that context the term "deploy" a has a similar meaning as the word "publish".

Hancock seems to be familiar with the usage of the word "deploy" in software development, because his book has one paragraph where he speaks about deploying an application to the App Store: "In other news, we've finally abandoned the in-house version of the contact tracing app. 'Dido is putting it to sleep. And moving on. Probably quite right,' Jim told me gruffly. He's worried about how we explain it. The app developers have built a perfectly good system that works - but Apple won't let us deploy it because they don't want us using the data in the NHS to identify contacts and save lives."

In the context of deploying military troops to a foreign country, the word "deploy" has a similar meaning as the phrase "send out", and you might also say that military troops are sent out to a foreign country. However in the same way Hancock might have meant that they would send out the story about Alpha to the media.

Meanings of the terms roll the pitch and forward signaling

Damon Poole wrote: "Rather than doing too much forward signalling, we can roll pitch with the new strain".

I wasn't sure what "to roll pitch" meant at first because I didn't find its definition on Google Search, but Google Gemini said: "In a more figurative sense, 'to roll the pitch' means to prepare people for an upcoming change, especially if it's likely to be unpopular. It's like softening the ground (the pitch) before delivering the news [2]. This usage is more common in British English [2]." Gemini also said: "Imagine a cricket pitch (the playing surface) that needs to be flattened and prepared before the game. Similarly, 'rolling the pitch' signifies getting everyone ready for the new situation."

When I asked Gemini what "forward signaling" meant, it gave the definition of a biological term, but when I asked it for other meanings of the term, it gave this definition: "In the realm of finance or trading, 'forward signaling' might be a more informal way of describing sending out information that could influence future market behavior. This could involve things like announcements or strategic leaks." However Poole may have also meant something else with the term.

When Hancock talked about frightening "the pants off everyone with the new strain", the frightening he referred to seems to have been a function of the media. And in the same way the terms "to roll the pitch" and "forward signaling" both seem to refer to the communications strategy that Hancock and Poole would've relayed to the media.

Damon Poole was Hancock's media advisor, so if you search for his name in Hancock's book, you'll see that he is often discussing media strategy with Hancock.

Entries from Hancock's book

According to Matt Hancock's book "Pandemic Diaries", he was first informed about Alpha on December 11th, he called Boris Johnson about Alpha on December 12th, and he talked to the UK parliament about Alpha on December 14th: [https://libgen.rocks/index.php?req=pandemic+diaries+matt+hancock]

FRIDAY 11 DECEMBER

Fridays are typically quieter in Westminster, so I took the opportunity to film a series of Christmas and New Year messages for the department with Lauren from the parliamentary team. Midway through this cheerful exercise, I was interrupted by a phone call from JVT.

'I think I know what the problem is in Kent,' he said bluntly. 'I need to come and see you about it. Genomic testing has found a new variant. It must be spreading much faster. It's obviously now across Kent, Essex and London.'

For the second time in three days, my stomach lurched. At least this explained why the Kent numbers had been so stubbornly high.

'This is a disaster,' I replied. I fired questions at him: How much do we know? When did it first appear? Will the vaccine still work? If the November lockdown couldn't keep it down, what will?

'I don't know,' JVT replied honestly. He asked me to give him the evening to find out more. Taking a deep breath, I asked Natasha to fix a Zoom for early tomorrow afternoon and tried to return to my task. It was impossible. Trying to create upbeat, grateful Christmas messages when I now knew there was no chance of a normal Christmas felt almost insulting. I attempted to keep recording, but my heart wasn't in it. Later the team told me the footage was unusable - apparently the news was written all over my face. I couldn't hide my disappointment.

The new variant reinforced my determination to derail a Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs proposal that would allow seasonal workers from eastern Europe to continue coming here to work on farms. It is complete madness, especially given the mink scenario. Seriously, why don't they just hire local people and pay them more? The clinical advice is that letting in so many foreign labourers could set our vaccine programme back six months. DEFRA duly fell into line.

On my recommendation, Jim Bethell has been talking to George Osborne about how to make a success of the G7 summit when we host it next year. George's advice is to keep the agenda tight and pay proper attention to the atmospherics: choose a good venue like a country house hotel; make sure bits of the summit are held somewhere with a cool vibe; and don't forget to give them all a gift. The Germans once gave me a whole dark-chocolate Brandenburg Gate; the French, something from Hermès. Last time we hosted, we gave the leaders Burberry scarves.

'Perfect,' I replied. 'Let's make the focus "protect the west from the next pandemic".'

Later Jamie alerted me to an article in the i newspaper by Stephen Bush saying my approach to the pandemic has been vindicated while the Chancellor 'called the whole thing dead wrong'. Nice for me, but a bit harsh on Rishi. Jamie may have left, but he's still looking out for me and asked how my relationship with Rishi is doing, to which I replied - truthfully - that it's in a great place.

'Make sure you're being as nice and supportive as you can to him, even if HMT are being twats,' he replied. Good advice. While Rishi and I haven't always agreed, he has done a terrific job protecting the economy.

Finally, a text from Damon, informing me that someone spotted me at the Four Seasons Hotel and has told the media that I was quaffing champagne.

'Am I OK to say you didn't buy champagne? The idiot is saying it cost £3.5k,' Damon asked.

Er, yes. I would never spend £3.5k, or even a fraction of £3.5k, on champagne, and I am certainly not feeling remotely celebratory.

SATURDAY 12 DECEMBER

The whole Christmas plan is disintegrating.

I woke up to hear Professor Linda Bauld, an expert in public health at the University of Edinburgh, labelling the proposed relaxation a 'mistake' because people will travel from high- to low-prevalence areas to see relatives. Later Vaughan Gething chimed in to suggest that if cases remain high, we may have to change tack - blowing apart the UK-wide consensus. And this is before we go public about the new variant.

At 2.30 p.m. I logged onto the Zoom with JVT. It turns out that PHE has been tracking the new variant for some time - as they do with many others - but were not seriously worried until they put two and two together with the cases rocketing in Kent. It now accounts for almost all new infections in the area. There's a possibility it started in France, but that's now irrelevant. The Prof thinks it's unlikely to be any more deadly but it may well be more transmissible.

With a sinking feeling, I told the others that we must publish the details and inform the WHO. I know there will be huge consequences: just look what the mink variant did to Denmark, and what has happened to South Africa, where a new variant was detected in October. Macron now has every excuse to close the border at Calais, and the rest of the EU will swiftly follow. If the new variant evades the vaccine, we are all well and truly stuffed.

These formalities agreed, I called Boris, who was surprisingly sanguine. He seemed somehow resigned to the misery we will have to inflict on everyone.

'It's going to make Christmas very difficult,' I said.

'Christmas was already going to be very difficult,' he replied philosophically.

Later a GP friend got in touch to tell me that younger care home workers are reluctant to have the vaccine. Understandably, operators are worried about their legal position. What if an unvaccinated carer brings Covid into a home and infects a resident? Could the company be held liable? I messaged Nadhim, saying we needed to discuss. 'Clearly we can't mandate,' he replied, meaning: we can't force care workers to have the jab.

I'm not so sure. If you want to work with the most vulnerable people in our society, surely you have a duty to be vaccinated? This is why the hepatitis B vaccination is already mandatory for doctors. People will have strong views on both sides, but I know where I stand.

Separately, I asked Nadhim if he thinks we made the right call when we said we won't pile vaccines into Covid hotspots. It's been bothering me.

'Yes, because of the fairness argument,' he replied, adding that if we'd approached this geographically, great swathes of the country would be left without any vaccine at all.

SUNDAY 13 DECEMBER

All hell is breaking loose over Christmas. Damon says Tory MPs are 'already furious' at the prospect that everything will be cancelled. Pretty much everyone else is saying it would be insane to press on as planned. According to Helen Whately, the situation in Kent hospitals is dire and it's not at all clear how they will cope over the next few weeks, even without the Christmas easements.

'I don't see how we can have them,' is her gloomy verdict.

Ever eager to throw in his tuppenny worth, Chris Hopson of NHS Providers publicly appealed to us to 'think really carefully' about the festive season, which is his way of signalling that he'll be on the radio every single day complaining about how awful everything is unless we change course.

I asked the Prof whether he thinks there is any way we can stick to the original plan. Basically, no.

'The problem is that we'd be taking a risk from an already very high base,' he said.

If we have to U-turn, hopefully the Kent variant will reduce the backlash. His worry is that if there is any suggestion the vaccine doesn't work for the new strain, the right-wing press will start arguing that we should just let the virus rip.

'That's why we reassure on the vaccine,' I replied. There's no evidence the vaccine doesn't work.

Susan Hopkins at PHE is tearing her hair out that they didn't pick up the clusters earlier, given they have known about the new variant since 20 September, though to be fair to them, they could not have known back then how significant it would become.

The good news is that the vaccine rollout is going from strength to strength. I think we might be able to jab as many as 2 million people by Christmas. When I publicly suggested as much, Simon Stevens kicked off. In a patronising message to Damon, he sniffed that there is 'no version of reality' whereby 'several million people will receive the vaccine before Christmas', saying that whoever put this about (i.e. me) 'might want to urgently undertake some course correction before that inevitably becomes clear'. According to Damon, NHS England now want to 'distance themselves a bit' from the 'millions line'. Very bad idea.

'We must NOT look like there's any separation,' I said firmly. I can just see the 'government split' headlines. I may have not stuck to my own adage about under-promising and over-delivering - Simon's got a point - but it's for me to clear this up, not for NHS England to brief against.

I'm doing the morning media round tomorrow and asked Nadhim his advice. 'Do you need to say a number?' he asked, adding that we've done 100,000 so far.

'I don't need to, but I've got so much shit to shovel it would be nice to have some cheer too,' I replied.

His response was three heart emojis and a bunch of praise. 'This job would have burned out the best of us,' he said, kindly.

MONDAY 14 DECEMBER

Amazingly, this morning I managed to row back from my 2 million comment without any fuss. Another minor screw-up sorted. At least it was only on the comms.

Then later I announced the new variant in a statement to Parliament. The reaction wasn't as sensible as I'd hoped: even normally reasonable MPs like Greg Clark and Damian Green are going tonto. Everyone can see Christmas falling apart, and judgement is going out of the window. In a sign of Downing Street nerves, Michael Gove summoned me to the Cabinet Office to ask whether we can go any faster with the jab. Er, no. We're already going all out. I've already answered these 'daft laddie' questions. The pressure to accelerate is immense. The next few days are going to be very rough.

In the entry for December 13th above, Hancock even referred to the Alpha variant in connection to Poole's WhatsApp message about right-wing press arguing that we should let the virus rip: "If we have to U-turn, hopefully the Kent variant will reduce the backlash. His worry is that if there is any suggestion the vaccine doesn't work for the new strain, the right-wing press will start arguing that we should just let the virus rip."

The introduction to Hancock's book says that the book was written in the form of diary, but that the entries for each day were written retrospectively and not on the day when they happened:

Written as a diary, sometimes hour by hour but mostly day by day, it charts the key events and how I felt about them at the time.

Of course, I didn’t have time to keep a detailed diary in the midst of the maelstrom, nor would it have been right to do so. For the best part of eighteen months, I spent almost every waking hour managing our response, alongside the many amazing healthcare professionals, carers, public servants and other key workers who did so much to save lives and keep the country going.

[...]

The account that follows has been meticulously pieced together from my formal papers held by the department; contemporaneous notes and voice memos; my communications with ministerial colleagues; interviews with many of the participants and myriad other emails and messages that record what happened and why particular decisions were taken.