The leaked news showing how Matt Hancock chose to save face rather than cut Covid quarantine

lockdown files

At certain times during the pandemic, more than 600,000 people a week who had been in close proximity to a Covid case were told to self-quarantine for 10 days.

Overall, the directive resulted in more than 20 million people – a third of the total population – being told to self-isolate, regardless of whether they had symptoms.

Now WhatsApp messages from The Telegraph show that a proposal to replace this with five days of testing had already been discussed in November 2020 – but was not implemented.

The lockdown files show Matt Hancock, then Health Secretary, was told by England’s chief medical officer they could change the policy in favor of “5-day testing instead of isolation”. At that point, the self-isolation period was 14 days.

But instead of taking Prof Sir Chris Whitty’s advice, Mr Hancock dismissed the idea – fearing it would “imply mean we got it wrong”.

Switching to a five-day testing regime would have changed the way the country was able to operate during the pandemic.

A month after Sir Chris gave his advice, isolation was reduced to 10 days – a duration that continued to wreak havoc on businesses and services.

By the summer of 2021, so many people were receiving automated “pings” from the NHS Test and Trace app telling them to stay home that restaurants and other businesses had to close due to staff shortages.

The app proved so sensitive that it pinged neighbors through walls, prompting many people to delete the app in frustration. The Government eventually had to exempt some key workers from self-isolating to prevent the NHS and critical food supply chains from collapsing.

In August 2021, those under the age of 18 years and six months and those who were fully vaccinated no longer had to be isolated if they were close contacts.

However, it took until February 2022 for self-isolation guidance for contacts of positive Covid cases to be completely scrapped. By that time, NHS Test and Trace had cost taxpayers around £26billion.

Now, for the first time, WhatsApp messages are revealing the talks that have been going on behind the scenes about politics.

The chief medical officers and the government’s scientific advisory body, Sage, were all in favor of trying to scale back the policy before the “pingdemic” even started.

What happened after the conversation remains unclear. On December 14, almost a month later, the quarantine period was reduced from 14 to 10 days for both contacts of positive cases and travelers returning from countries not on the travel corridor list.

A day later, a “test to release” program was introduced, allowing isolated travelers to purchase tests privately to reduce their quarantine time to five days.

Most contacts of positive cases were only exempted from the 10-day self-isolation in August 2021. The isolation policy was eventually scrapped in February 2022.

WhatsApp messages obtained by The Telegraph show that Mr Hancock asked his team about alternatives to the 14-day self-isolation in August 2020, less than three months after the launch of Test and Trace.

At this point in the pandemic, the 14-day quarantine applied to both contacts of Covid cases and those returning from travel. The directive wreaked havoc on holidaymakers and separated families for months, with most people unable to take an extra two weeks off to self-quarantine on return.

On August 5, messages appear on the ‘MH Top Team’ WhatsApp group from the then Health Secretary, mainly dealing with the self-isolation restrictions imposed on people returning to the UK from abroad, rather than close contacts of people who are infected with the virus. The group included his aides and officials from his private office.

Mr Hancock asked: “Where do we stand on testing and release and quarantine exemptions for high net worth individuals?”

In response to this point, a senior official said: “Being tested and released and awaiting an update today – on High Net Worth BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] lead, but we asked for it.”

When Mr Hancock returned to the issue two weeks later, this time he only asked about the policy that applied to “high net worth” businessmen.

It was at this point Emma Dean, one of his assistants, interjected to ask Mr Hancock to ‘clean’ a quote about Leicester, which has just been released from lockdown over higher virus rates in the region.

The message included the instruction to “isolate when NHS Test and Trace tells you to”.

After approving the statement, Mr Hancock returned to the subject at hand – the lifting of travel restrictions for “high net worth individuals”. The former health secretary seemed surprised to hear that the policy hadn’t been given the green light by the economics department.

Ms Dean’s concern that there could be a “communications risk” with the policy of releasing only wealthy business travelers from self-isolation proved correct.

When news broke in November 2020 that the government was planning to exempt city dealmakers, hedge fund managers and company bosses flying to the UK from the 14-day quarantine rule, the public was furious.

At 10.32pm on October 24, Mr Hancock sent a screenshot of an article in The Telegraph to a WhatsApp chat labeled “CSA-CMO-Matt-PM-Dom”.

As the name suggests, the group consisted of Sir Chris; Sir Patrick Vallance, the Principal Scientific Advisor; Boris Johnson; and Dominic Cummings, then chief adviser to the Prime Minister. It also included Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary.

The Telegraph article, citing a “No. 10 source” says ministers are considering halving the mandatory 14-day isolation period for contacts of positive cases amid fears of “compliance”.

Mr Hancock appeared unaware of the proposed policy change.

Mr Case replied in the early hours of October 25, stating that it might not be a “problem” that this easing of quarantine restrictions appeared to have been told to the newspapers by Downing Street.

He suggested the story detracted from a “hatchet job” done by Sir Bernard Jenkin on “Dido and Team” – referring to Baroness Harding – after the Tory MP wrote in The Telegraph about a “management vacuum” at the heart of the Party had written test program.

It would also, he implied, take the heat off the “leaked/leaked” news that ministers were trying to exempt “senior executives/high net worth individuals” from travel quarantine.

Mr Case said: “We look completely insane to look at how we’re getting rich people across our borders, but not how we’re making it easier for ordinary people in this country to follow the isolation rules!”

In his response to Mr Fall on October 25, Mr Hancock did not seem opposed to the idea that quarantine for contacts of positive cases could be halved. He simply wanted the amendment “to be formulated on the basis of clinical evidence — not on the basis of a lack of isolation.”

It is unclear if he or anyone in No. 10 had obtained any such evidence at the time.

But a month later, on November 17, 2020, Mr Hancock received some scientific advice in favor of easing self-isolation restrictions for people who were contacted by NHS Test and Trace.

However, Mr Hancock was concerned about how the move would affect the public.

In his Pandemic Diaries memoir, Mr Hancock wrote that on November 17 he “pressed strongly to reduce isolation times for people who have tested negative with lateral flow kits. Annoyingly, this requires working with the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency]who are currently refusing to sign it,” adding, “Basically, they don’t like the idea of ​​DIY testing.”

When the self-isolation requirement was lifted on 24 February 2022, 26.4 million people in England were told to self-isolate.

Support payments totaling £224million have been paid to 448,000 low-income people who have been unable to work due to the period of self-isolation.

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