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UK Minister Denies Government Tried to Frighten Public Into Following Lockdown Rules

A minister has denied the UK government tried to scare the public into following COVID-19 lockdown rules after leaked messages suggest former Health Secretary Matt Hancock wanted to “frighten the pants off everyone” in order to ensure compliance.

The latest set of WhatsApp exchanges, published in The Sunday Telegraph, shows how Hancock and other officials discussed using an announcement about the Kent variant of the virus to scare the public into changing their behaviour.

Epoch Times Photo
Health Secretary Matt Hancock in Downing Street, in London, on Dec. 10, 2020. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The messages, among more than 100,000 passed to the Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, also show that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in persuading people to follow lockdown rules.

But government minister Chris Heaton-Harris denied that it was a government strategy to frighten the public during the pandemic.

The Northern Ireland secretary told the BBC: “I think the government strategy was to try and protect the British public as best it possibly could … and to try and give as much information as it possibly could at the right times.”

‘Frighten the Pants Off Everyone’

In a Dec. 13, 2020, exchange between Hancock and an aide, the then-health secretary’s adviser said, “Rather than doing too much forward signalling, we can roll pitch with the new strain.”

Hancock responded: “We frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain.”

“Yep that’s what will get proper behaviour change,” the adviser said.

“When do we deploy the new variant,” Hancock then asked.

On the following day, Hancock announced that a new COVID-19 variant had been identified in the UK.

The government said on Dec. 19 that London and southeast England were to enter a new Tier 4 alert level, and a promised Christmas “bubbles” policy allowing families to meet was cancelled.

The whole of England entered the third national lockdown on Jan. 6, 2021.

‘Fear/Guilt Factor Vital’

Messages from Jan. 10, 2021, show Hancock and the Cabinet secretary discussing ways to ensure compliance.

Hancock told Case that he “honestly wouldn’t move on any small things unless we move on a lot.”

Case agreed: “I think that is exactly right. Small stuff looks ridiculous. Ramping up messaging—the fear/guilt factor vital.

The senior civil servant said news of the National Health Service (NHS) opening a specialist COVID-19 “Nightingale hospital” in London would serve to generate the necessary fear.

“I suspect London Nightingale coming into use will feel like a big public moment. Especially as I guess it will be full with a couple of days (based on current data).”

‘Big Reset’

Some of the messages also offered an insight into then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s thinking at various stages of the pandemic.

In one of the newly released messages, Johnson spoke of the need to get “absolutely militant” on social distancing in COVID-19 hotspots.

In a conversation with Simon Case in July 2020, he wrote, “We need to tell people that if they want to save the economy and protect the NHS then they need to follow the rules.

“And we may need to tighten the rules. You can now have 6 people from different households indoors. Do people really understand that and are they observing it?” he asked.

The exchange came one month after the prime minister broke the rules himself by attending his birthday party in June 2020. Johnson, his wife Carrie, and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak were later fined by police for the breach.

In August 2020, Johnson warned that government messaging was becoming “so mangled as to be totally incomprehensible.”

“We need big reset and simple themes pumped over the airwaves especially on social distancing and how many people you can have in your house etc,” he wrote.

A spokesman for the former prime minister said: “It is not appropriate to comment on these leaks. The public inquiry provides the right process for these issues to be examined.”

‘Partial Account’

Oakeshott, who shared the messages with the Telegraph, co-authored Hancock’s memoir “Pandemic Diaries,” which covered his time as health secretary.

Hancock condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda,” but Oakeshott said the disclosures are in the public interest.

Talking to the BBC on Sunday, Heaton-Harris insisted that the leaked messages do not present the full picture of what happened at the heart of the British government during 2020 and 2021.

“It really is a partial account of what was going on and almost a view into the psyche of Matt Hancock rather than into the actual decision-making,” he said.

Asked if he was comfortable with the tone of conversation revealed in the messages, the minister said: “I think viewers would expect that politicians being human beings would express things in a human way, and I don’t think that you would find one politician that wasn’t afraid at the beginning of the lockdown—first lockdown, when we had no idea what the pandemic was going to be.

“Today’s revelations were around the time where there were no vaccines, there was limited testing,” he said, adding that the public should wait for the official inquiry into the government’s pandemic response, as “you have got to put it in the time context as well as everything else.”

PA Media contributed to this report.

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