- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team - March 9, 2023 -
Matt Hancock told of alpha strain just days before festive season had to be cancelled, even though scientists knew about it long before
Government scientists failed for months to tell ministers about the new Covid variant that led to Christmas being cancelled, The Telegraph can reveal.
Matt Hancock said that it was a “total outrage” and demanded an immediate briefing when he realised the team sequencing the virus had known for around three months that it had mutated in cases in London and Kent.
Mr Hancock, who was health secretary at the time, then appeared to try to cover up the issue by asking for a breakdown of who knew what and when to be prepared as “advice to ministers”, so it was not subject to Freedom of Information laws.
Just days after the prime minister was informed of the existence of the alpha variant, he announced that Christmas had to be cancelled for millions of people in London and the South East because it had spread so widely.
A study by Oxford University later found that the rapid spread was not due to increased transmissibility but a “super seeding event”, where the variant was passed on by multiple people and had already travelled around the country before restrictions were put into place. Mr Hancock mentioned the variant to his “top team” of special advisers in WhatsApp messages on Dec 13.
He insisted that he needed an explainer on the variant, adding: “I need to approve it. It needs to be clear about the heightened transmission risk, and very cautious - very reassuring - in anything said about the vaccine impact so as not to harm public confidence.”
Later that day, he asked his advisers for “urgent advice on the genomic sequencing of every single positive PCR test”, saying that he had asked for this “months ago”. He added: “Also I want to know immediately what other variants there are out there. I have just been told that Sharon Peacock knew about this in September.”
Prof Peacock, who held senior positions in Public Health England since 2019, is chairman of the Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) consortium - a group of public health agencies and academic institutions created to sequence and analyse the virus.
In a separate conversation with Damon Poole, his media adviser, the health secretary said the fact that the first case of the Kent variant was identified in a sample from Sept 20 2020 was a “total outrage”.
He said that “back then”, the scientists “wouldn’t have known the implications” but that Prof Susan Hopkins, who was leading the strategic response to Covid at Public Health England (PHE), “has been tearing her hair out”.
On Dec 13, Mr Hancock said that he had spoken to Michael Gove, then minister for the Cabinet Office, and had “floated cancelling Christmas” in certain areas - which he said his colleague could “see the point of”.
According to his Pandemic Diaries, Mr Hancock first learnt of the new variant in a phone call from Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, on Dec 11.
He said in his memoir that scientists had been tracking the variant for some time “but were not seriously worried until they put two and two together with cases rocketing in Kent”.
However, there was widespread concern about the situation in Kent from November, when it was realised that cases were increasing against the tide of national restrictions.
In the first two weeks of November, cases in Sheppey doubled and Medway Maritime hospital soon became the busiest Covid hospital in the country, with almost half of its beds occupied.
While Cog-UK was aware of the mutation, other scientists were dispatched to the South East to try to work out what was going wrong. Kent’s residents were blamed for non-compliance.
On Nov 29, Mr Hancock told Helen Whately, the care minister, that Tory MPs in the region were “all furious about being locked down - but the real question is: why is the virus spreading so fast in kent?!”
Ms Whately, MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, replied: “Tough. They are angry, reflecting the anger of many of our constituents. My theories for why it’s so bad; people are poor (the wealth of west kent disguises it), lots of key workers who cannot work from home, also can’t afford to isolate, combined with low compliance (people don’t think covid is a problem here, don’t like facemasks etc).”
Mr Hancock responded: “The odd thing though is why it’s going in the wrong direction during national lockdown.”
Ms Whately said: “Yes. That does puzzle me. Judging by my inbox and conversations locally, most people think ‘kent is fine, except Sheppey and Thanet’ so I wonder if that’s affected compliance. But I haven’t seen any evidence.”
Prof Hopkins said in December 2021 that after realising the rise was not linked to any particular group or a workplace, her team reviewed the genomic epidemiology and discovered the variant. Prof Peacock had been aware of it since September, the Lockdown Files reveal.
Over the next 48 hours, PHE “rapidly undertook” an investigation and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) was informed on Dec 10. They told Boris Johnson, the prime minister, the following day.
On the evening of Dec 13, a civil servant in the Department of Health and Social Care messaged Mr Hancock to say she had been asked “to commission explanation into exactly what we knew when about current variant and decision making around when to escalate to ministers”, asking: “Are you happy with that?” Mr Hancock replied: “Must commission as advice to ministers so it can’t be FOIed - and keep a very tight copy list.”
“Will do,” replied the civil servant.
Both the public and the World Health Organisation were informed about the variant the following day.
Mr Hancock sent a message to Dan Rosenfield, then Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, noting that: “The fact that the issue on the variant did not leak is very satisfactory.”
Within 10 days of finding out about the new variant, on Dec 19, Mr Johnson was forced to announce that Christmas would now be cancelled for large swathes of the country.
Critics said that the Government should have acted sooner to stop the spread and tried to avoid the lockdown - a criticism that did not go unnoticed by Mr Hancock. On Dec 21, as the highest tier restrictions came into effect, he shared with his advisers a Sky News interview with Nervtag’s Prof Andrew Hayward.
“This interview provides very clear expert rebuttal of the (developing) attack narrative that the Government knew about the new strain and failed to act,” he said.
In it, Prof Hayward said they had only known about the variant for around 10 days and there had been “frantic efforts” to gather more information, as well as a “really heroic pulling together of the information over a record time”. He added that the “Government has taken very swift action on this”.
It was not the first time that Mr Hancock and his team had criticised Prof Peacock. In April, amid a discussion about embedding someone in local NHS teams to ensure that they could cope, he told his advisers: “Not Sharon under any circumstance. It is largely her fault that we are in this state.”
Lord Bethell of Romford, then the health minister, also repeatedly criticised her - saying at one point that she had “ducked out” of a plan that they had put together on testing and that Mr Hancock was being “played” by her.
“We cannot have sharon ‘driving’ anything. She can provide scientific advice, but pls pls pls do not ask her to ‘do’ anything. i dont mean to be a drag but i am very upset about this,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message.
In a later discussion on the NHS backing out on large-scale antibody testing, Lord Bethell warned the then health secretary “they just did a ‘Sharon Peacock’ on you”. Prof Peacock said: “I completely reject the factual inaccuracies and deeply personal attacks contained in these leaked messages. “It is extremely misleading to suggest that the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium failed to inform the relevant people about the newly-emerging B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant. “Together with the research community and colleagues at all four public health agencies including Public Health England, we worked tirelessly to understand Covid-19 and limit its spread. “The COG-UK Consortium is made up of the four public health agencies of the UK, 16 universities and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. COG-UK shared its genome data every week with all 21 partners and with many other scientists in the UK and internationally. All genome data were put into global databases as soon as possible. “Genome data alone cannot confirm whether a particular variant is more transmissible. Looking back, Alpha was first detected in very low numbers in September but was one of thousands of different variants worldwide. “An assessment of transmissibility requires the combination of genome data with public health information on the place and timing of Covid-19 cases, supported by modelling of the data. Only then can greater transmissibility of a particular variant be confirmed. A single variant detected by sequencing means nothing without the context of how it behaves.”
A government spokesman said: “We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic. We are committed to learning from the Covid inquiry’s findings, which will play a key role in informing the government’s planning and preparations for the future.”