- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team Mar 6, 2023 -
The then health secretary and his political aide discussed taking plan for a learning disability hub in Bury ‘off the table’
Matt Hancock discussed a plan to block funding for a new centre for disabled children and adults as a way of pressuring a rebel Tory MP to back new lockdown restrictions, The Lockdown Files show.
WhatsApp messages between Mr Hancock, the then health secretary, and his political aide show they discussed taking a plan for a learning disability hub in Bury, Greater Manchester, “off the table” if James Daly, the Bury North MP, sided against the Government in a key vote.
It came ahead of the vote on Dec 1, 2020 on the introduction of a toughened new local tiers system of restrictions for England.
The Telegraph has also obtained a WhatsApp message with an attached list of 95 Conservative MPs planning to vote against the tier system and detailing their concerns about it.
The list was referred to by ministers as the vote approached and anxiety about a possible rebellion by backbench Conservative MPs increased.
Allan Nixon, Mr Hancock’s political aide overseeing relations with MPs in Parliament, messaged his boss with a suggestion of how to ensure the backing of as many Tory MPs as possible from the 2019 intake who won their seats in the Boris Johnson landslide.
In a message to Mr Hancock, sent on Nov 22, 2020, Mr Nixon said:
Mr Daly – whose constituency is the most marginal in the UK mainland with a majority of just 105 – told The Telegraph he was “appalled” and “disgusted” that the disability hub, for which he had been campaigning, had been discussed as a way of coercing him into voting with the Government.
He said he had never been contacted by the Whips’ Office and no threat to block the scheme had been made. It comes as The Telegraph reveals further WhatsApp messages showing that Mr Hancock planned to give French Covid patients places in UK hospitals during the second national lockdown.
It has also emerged that Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, told the Government not to introduce an effective “sex ban” during the first lockdown.
Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, has faced a backlash for his part in the discussions over lockdown. The Telegraph has revealed that he described Mr Johnson as “distrusted” and has previously reported that he called it “hilarious” that holidaymakers returning to Britain were “locked up” in hotel rooms.
Current and former senior civil servants described his comments as “naive” and “cringeworthy”, and questioned whether he would remain in post.
The attempts to keep MPs onside are contained in WhatsApp conversations obtained by The Telegraph and included in The Lockdown Files.
On the morning of the vote, Mr Hancock messaged his adviser to say: “James Daly is with us”, but Mr Nixon responded with the caveat: “If extra hospitality support is forthcoming.”
Later that day, Mr Nixon also forwarded his boss a new list of MPs who were undecided on the vote. In the event, Mr Daly voted against the Government, according to the parliamentary record.
In total, 55 Conservative MPs opposed the tiers system, forcing Mr Johnson to rely on Labour abstaining to get the measures through. It was, at the time, the biggest rebellion of the Johnson administration.
After revealing that he had not been contacted by the Whips’ Office, Mr Daly said: “It sounds like the whips didn’t bother.”
The Bury North MP said he was surprised that the hub, which would allow specialists to coordinate activity under one roof, was even being threatened because “it never got dangled in the first place”.
He added: “They were never proposing to give it to me. I still don’t have it. Even though I have repeatedly campaigned for it, Hancock never showed the slightest bit of interest in supporting it. I had a number of conversations with Hancock at that time, but I can definitively say the hub was never mentioned.
“I think it is appalling. The fact that they would only give a much needed support for disabled people if I voted for this was absolutely disgusting.”
Mr Daly had discussed the need for the centre with Mr Hancock in January 2020. In a post on his website about “how we improve health outcomes for all Bury North residents”, he published a photograph of himself with the then health secretary. The hub, he said, would benefit “the most vulnerable in our community”.
Three days before the vote, Mr Nixon had sent the WhatsApp message with the attached list of 95 Conservative MPs that the Whips’ Office had passed to him, detailing their concerns and giving a rating on how likely they were to rebel.
It also noted which tier each MP’s constituency would be going into following the vote. In the end, the Government persuaded 37 of the MPs threatening to rebel to vote for the tier system, while a further eight abstained.
Mr Nixon told Mr Hancock:
The vote gave the go-ahead for the tightened system of tiers. The new measures plunged most of England into the strictest levels and were introduced after a month-long “circuit breaker” lockdown as cases rose in the run-up to Christmas. In total, more than 23 million people were placed in the highest Tier 3, including Greater Manchester and Birmingham, with almost the entire rest of the country – 32 million people – in Tier 2, including London and Liverpool.
Just three regions, or just over one per cent of the population, were put into Tier 1.