- THE TELEGRAPH - The Lockdown Files Team - March 9, 2023 -
PM's spokesman says 'still questions to be answered' after Lockdown Files showed censorship of China comments in Matt Hancock book
Downing Street has distanced itself from the Cabinet Office's claim that it was "entirely coincidental" that Covid-19 was discovered close to a Chinese government laboratory.
The Telegraph revealed on Wednesday that Matt Hancock was censored by the Cabinet Office over his concern that the virus was the result of a lab leak in Wuhan. But No 10 declined to repeat the suggestion and said it was willing to consider the “lab leak” theory.
A spokesman for Rishi Sunak said that there were "still questions that need to be answered about the origin and spread of Covid-19" and added: "The UK wants to see a robust, transparent and science-led review and believes all possibilities remain on the table until that is concluded."
Whitehall sources told The Telegraph that ministers would not hesitate to condemn China and support the theory – which suggests Covid-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan in 2019 – if evidence is presented by the World Health Organisation.
Mr Hancock was asked to remove passages from his book, Pandemic Diaries, in which he questioned the official Chinese version of events because of concerns they would “cause problems” and could “damage national security”.
In a process overseen by Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, Mr Hancock was instructed to remove references to a lab leak with officials informing him that the Government believed the location of the first Covid outbreak was “entirely coincidental”.
Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, sent Matt Hancock a letter signing off publication for his memoirs
Asked explicitly whether it was the Government's position that the proximity of the outbreak to the Wuhan Institute of Virology was "entirely coincidental", the spokesman added: "I'm not aware of that being a position of this Government."
Sources suggested that the Cabinet Office's review of Mr Hancock's book was intended to avoid the former minister making controversial statements about his work and did not reflect the Government's policy on the issue. The episode will put further pressure on Mr Case, who is responsible for overseeing the censorship of books written by former ministers, after messages revealed by The Telegraph showed him criticising Boris Johnson and joking about travellers forced to quarantine in hotels during the pandemic.
Senior civil servants are understood to have criticised his “weak” leadership in light of the revelations, while a former colleague said on Thursday he was in the “endgame” of his civil service career and had “dug himself into a hole”.
Sources close to Mr Case have denied rumours he intends to stand down, and while Mr Sunak refused to commit to his Cabinet Secretary remaining in post until the next election, he said the mandarin would stay in his role “for a very long time to come”.
Asked on Thursday whether Mr Case had personally overseen the censorship of Mr Hancock’s book, Downing Street said it “wouldn't get into individuals”.
Pressure to take tougher China stance
Mr Sunak is under increasing pressure to take a tougher stance on China ahead of the publication of the “Integrated Review refresh” on Monday.
The Telegraph understands members of his Cabinet hope No 10 will also explore the lab leak theory more proactively in light of a statement by Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, last week that said the origin of coronavirus was “most likely a potential lab incident”.
The US Department of Energy has made a similar claim.
On Thursday, Alicia Kearns, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said ministers should “pursue the truth” of the claims regardless of the “political cost”. “It is the duty of our Government to have an honest discussion with the public and equip us with facts and information, not silence those with more information from sharing their concerns,” she said.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, said: “It’s reflective of the confusion we have in our China strategy. Us hesitating [on speaking out] for fear of loss of trade shows China is exploiting our timidity.
“We don’t have a viable China strategy which is affecting China’s behaviour and China’s almost become too big a bully to challenge.”
Academics expressed concern about the prospect of an investigation inside China. Dr Alan Mendoza, from the Henry Jackson Society, a national security think-tank, said the censorship of Mr Hancock's book showed the UK "appears scared of China".
“A bold, confident nation would have no problem asserting the truth that a Wuhan lab leak scenario was possible," he said.
Dr Filippa Lentzos, co-director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London: said: “Yes, we still need an international forensic investigation, but, even if a mandate could be agreed and China came onboard – both highly unrealistic – the extent to which you could gather any reliable evidence this late in the game is questionable.”