- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team - March 6, 2023 -
Health secretary hoped to offer Emmanuel Macron ‘spare’ intensive care beds in Britain, despite increasing levels of the virus
Matt Hancock planned to bring French Covid patients to the UK for treatment during the second wave of the pandemic, despite national lockdown restrictions in force to protect the NHS.
Messages between the then health secretary, his advisers and Boris Johnson, then the prime minister, show he hoped to offer “spare” intensive care unit beds to Emmanuel Macron to help the French president deal with a major outbreak in his country in November 2020.
At that time, Britain was under a second national lockdown that was sold to the public as necessary to prevent the “medical and moral disaster” of an overwhelmed NHS.
But Downing Street and the Department of Health and Social Care created a secret plan to transfer Covid patients from the busiest French hospitals, bringing more cases of Covid to the UK.
The plan is not thought to have ever been implemented, but Mr Hancock said: “We may need to make a similar offer to Italy,” despite exponential increases in Britain’s own case numbers.
On Nov 13, Mr Hancock shared with his top advisers a letter that he planned to send to Olivier Veran, the French health minister, offering to import French Covid patients to the UK for treatment.
“I have seen the pressure on your hospitals, and that some patients are being transferred abroad,” the letter said. “We have our epidemic largely in the north of England, and some spare capacity in London and the south.
“We could provide some ICU beds to which you could transfer some patients. Would that be helpful to relieve pressure on your most affected regions? Our countries have always stood by each other in times of need.”
By this point in the European second Covid wave, the UK was looking to Europe as case numbers exploded in France, Italy and Spain, with a second national lockdown imposed in an attempt to reduce transmission.
France had already been taken off the UK’s travel corridor list, meaning that any person travelling to Britain from France was required to quarantine for 14 days or face a fine. By late November, France and Britain had similar rates of the virus, with around 275 cases per 100,000 people.
In an address to the nation on Oct 31, Mr Johnson said that even in the south-west of England, where Mr Hancock had proposed housing French patients, “it is now clear that current projections mean they will run out of hospital capacity in a matter of weeks unless we act”.
He said that if new measures were not imposed, the growth of Covid numbers would mean that “doctors and nurses would be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would get oxygen and who wouldn’t”, adding: “The overrunning of the NHS would be a medical and moral disaster beyond the raw loss of life.
“It is crucial to grasp that this general threat to public health comes not from focusing too much on Covid, but from not focusing enough, from failing to get it under control.”
An earlier WhatsApp conversation between Mr Hancock and Mr Johnson about the idea shows it originated with Lord Llewellyn of Steep, who was then serving as Britain’s ambassador in Paris.
“I love this idea of Ed Llewellyn’s to offer Macron (privately) to treat some of their cases where they have pressure on the health system,” Mr Hancock wrote to Mr Johnson on Oct 2, 2020. “Because we have a regional problem we also have regional capacity in East Anglia (Cambridge?) or the SW.”
Lord Llewellyn is now serving as the UK’s ambassador to Italy. He is a former Downing Street chief of staff, serving in Number 10 under David Cameron.