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Matt Hancock Covid memoirs censored over Wuhan lab leak comments

- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team - Mar 8, 2023 -

Ex-health secretary warned to steer clear of China criticism by government officials after he said Beijing's explanation 'just doesn't fly'

Matt Hancock was censored by the Cabinet Office over his concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic began with a lab leak in Wuhan, the Lockdown Files reveals. The former health secretary was told to tone down claims in his book because the Government feared it would "cause problems" with China.

Mr Hancock wanted to say that the Chinese explanation - that the virus being discovered close to a government science lab in Wuhan was coincidental - "just doesn't fly".

But, in correspondence from late last year and leaked to the Telegraph, the Cabinet Office told him that the Government's position was that the original outbreak's location was "entirely coincidental" .

It is the first time that the British position has been categorically stated. Mr Hancock was warned that to differ from this narrative, which resembles China's version of events, risked "damaging national security".

In his book, Pandemic Diaries, Mr Hancock also wanted to write that "Global fear of the Chinese must not get in the way of a full investigation into what happened” but this too was watered down.

The disclosure comes just days before Rishi Sunak prepares to set out a new defence and security strategy that is expected to take a less aggressive tone to China than that proposed by his predecessor, Liz Truss.

The changes to the book were made by the Cabinet Office when Mr Hancock submitted his manuscript for review - a process all former ministers are expected to follow - last year. Once alterations were made, the book was signed off for publication by Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, on November 4 2022. The assertion that the nature of the outbreak was "entirely coincidental" marks the first time that the British government has directly commented on the lab leak claims.

It is in contrast to the USA where the FBI and the Department for Energy have recently said that they believe that a lab leak theory is plausible.

In the draft of his Pandemic Diaries memoir, written with Isabel Oakeshott, Mr Hancock wrote “given how cagey the Chinese have been, I think we have to treat their official version of events – still the Wuhan thing – with considerable scepticism.

“Imagine there was an outbreak of a deadly new virus in Wiltshire and we shrugged off the fact that the outbreak ‘just so happened’ to be near a little place called Porton Down. We’d be laughed out of town."

However, officials at the Cabinet Office responded saying “this is highly sensitive and would cause problems if released”.

In a separate section he planned to write: "To me it seems pretty credible. It’s just too much of a coincidence that the pandemic started in the same city as the lab, which – by the way, is a full 40 minutes drive from the wet market originally linked to the outbreak. The only plausible alternative is that the virus was brought to Wuhan to be studied, and then escaped. The Chinese denials are a bit like us claiming that a random virus just happened to break out near a little place called Porton Down, perhaps because of some badgers. It just doesn’t fly."

The section was almost entirely removed at the behest of the Cabinet Office. To explain proposed alterations, civil servants wrote that the reference to “Porton Down is damaging to national security”, referring to the laboratory linked to the Ministry of Defence.

They explained: “What is set up as a joke, is one of the attack lines Russia has used against us for the Novichok poisoning, as it is only a few miles from Porton Down to Salisbury (which is entirely coincidental – as, we believe, it is that the Wuhan lab is so close to where the first covid outbreak was recorded)”.

The comments appear in the final version of the book significantly watered down with references to Porton Down – the Government's scientific and military research centre – and "global fear of the Chinese" removed.

The comments about the origins of the coronavirus are among a number of instances where officials asked for criticism of China to be removed.

It is significant because they offer a glimpse as to the thinking of the British government over the Covid-19 outbreak.

Until now, the Government has not directly commented on theories about a possible lab leak.

Last week, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, said that the bureau believed Covid-19 most likely originated in a Chinese government-controlled lab.

However, US intelligence agencies maintain there is still no consensus on the origins of the Covid-19 virus, while China has rejected any suggestion that the virus might have leaked.

Last year, the former head of MI6 said that any evidence that a lab leak in Wuhan sparked the coronavirus pandemic has probably been destroyed.

Sir Richard Dearlove, who headed up the secret intelligence service between 1999 and 2004, warned that it would be difficult to prove that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was working on "gain of function" experiments to make a natural coronavirus more deadly to humans.

At a hearing in Washington this week, witness Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former State Department official, said: “There is no smoking gun proving a lab origin hypothesis, but the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a gun that, at the very least, is warm to the touch."

Next Monday, the integrated defence spending review update will be published, as Mr Sunak meets Joe Biden in the US for talks around the Aukus security pact between Australia, the UK and the United States, a No 10 spokesman said on Wednesday.

Last year, it was reported that Ms Truss was expected to formally term China a “threat” in the update, raising the possibility that Mr Sunak may criticise the country.

The Pandemic Diaries was published in December last year.

In autumn 2022, a draft of the book was given to the Cabinet Office by Mr Hancock for clearance. Under the Ministerial Code, former ministers intending to publish their memoirs are required to submit the draft manuscript in good time before publication to the Cabinet Secretary”.

Under the Radcliffe report, written in the 1970s which sets out categories of information that should be restricted in diaries and memoirs, former ministers are prohibited from “reveal[ing] anything that contravenes the requirements of national security” with other categories including Britain’s “relations with other nations”.

After receiving the manuscript, officials at the Cabinet Office suggested multiple changes, which were set out in a spreadsheet, along with new proposed wording. The sheet includes a column for “rule triggered”, “feedback” and “recommended alteration”.

Civil servants highlight criticism of China and the World Health Organisation as areas to be amended. Other comments about Prince Charles, Donald Trump, Simon Case and Emmanuel Macron were also subject to recommended changes.

Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, sent Matt Hancock a letter signing off publication for his memoirs Mr Hancock had also wanted to reveal apparent praise he had been given by the then Prince of Wales for his handling of the pandemic but was told that it would "contradict the principle of confidential communication between Ministers and Members of the Royal Family".

He had also intended to reveal a private message from Mr Case in which the Cabinet Secretary described the Cabinet Office as "totally dysfunctional" but was told he could not as it was "damaging".

A civil servant also proposes that a section where the former health secretary describes a conversation with Dominic Raab be removed.

At the time, Mr Raab was foreign secretary and, according to the draft, had revealed that Germany was concerned that China might be able to produce a high number of vaccines and then use them as “a diplomatic weapon”.

The section did not appear in the final version of the book.

Civil servants also said they wanted Mr Hancock to change a section which described a meeting attended by Sir Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer during the pandemic.

The submitted version said that “JVT has been on a diplomatic tightrope at a global health security conference hosted by Taiwan. I tried to get hold of him first thing to discuss the latest on the vaccine programme but he was about to give a speech to a gathering of Asia Pacific health officials via Webex so couldn’t talk. He told me that Taiwanese representatives were trying to get him to criticise the WHO’s links to the Chinese, a temptation he resisted, given the ranks of hatchet faced Communist Party apparatchiks eyeballing him on the screen.

“Trying not to start WWIII,” he informed me breezily.

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