Matt Hancock expressed concern that a flagship Rishi Sunak policy was contributing to the spread of Covid-19 as the latest set of leaked messages reveal how the pair were at odds during the pandemic.
The details emerged in the latest tranche of leaked messages from the former health secretary, published by the Daily Telegraph.
The messages show Hancock attempting to get the support of cabinet secretary Simon Case in challenging the stance of the then-chancellor and others over certain pandemic-era rules, with the top civil servant – who is required to be politically neutral – complaining about “pure Conservative ideology” on the part of one senior minister.
In one message, Hancock also accuses Sunak of trying to “show ankle” to the “hard right” over his Covid-19 stance.
They also reveal Hancock had serious concerns about the Treasury’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme designed to support restaurants, dubbing it the “eat out to help the virus get about”.
One exchange, from June 2020, came as the Government considered how to relax restrictions. The messages show Hancock wanted cafes and restaurants to keep a register of customers’ details for NHS Test and Trace, urging that guidance would read “should” as opposed to “can”.
The latter phrasing, according to the messages, was preferred by then-business secretary Sir Alok Sharma.
“The language on customer logs has just gone from ‘should’ to ‘can’. Grateful if you can fix – we can’t reverse this at the last minute!” Hancock said.
Case replied: “Alok blocking ‘should’. Will need to fix after this meeting.”
Later, he said: “If Alok mad enough to raise it, PM will probably be clear again.”
Hancock, responding, says the “question I can’t understand is why Alok is against controlling the virus. Strange approach”.
“Pure Conservative ideology,” Case responds.
Sunak, chancellor at the time, is also mentioned in the conversation with Case, describing him as “going bonkers about ‘should’ right now too”.
In another message from October 2020, Hancock appears to hit out at Sunak’s attitude about lockdowns, writing: “What’s Rishi’s dilemma? Whether to stop the virus, or tilt at the party & show ankle to the hard right?”
The exchanges were among more than 100,000 messages passed to the Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott.
She was originally given the material by Hancock while they were collaborating on his memoir of his time in government during the pandemic.
Hancock has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”.
She has insisted the revelations are in the public interest.
Elsewhere, the latest messages show the then-health secretary’s worries about the Treasury-backed Eat Out to Help Out initiative.
The state-backed scheme offered customers a 50% discount, up to £10, on meals and soft drinks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as businesses sought to recover from the pandemic.
Concerns have been expressed subsequently that the scheme could have contributed to the spread of the virus.
In December 2020, in a conversation with an aide, Hancock called the scheme “eat out to help the virus get about”.
The previous summer, he had made his concerns clear to the cabinet secretary.
He wrote: “Just want to let you know directly that we have had lots of feedback that Eat out to help out is causing problems in our jntervention [sic] areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious.
“So please please lets not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”
The paper also published messages showing Hancock and his officials scrambling to save the health secretary’s career after footage emerged of his embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo.
A spokesperson for Hancock said: “There’s nothing new in these messages, and absolutely no public interest in publishing them given the independent inquiry has them all. It’s highly intrusive, completely inappropriate and has all been discussed endlessly before.”
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, who represents Leicester South, was among those expressing anger at the messages.
The city faced a lengthy lockdown in response to concerns about rising infection rates in the local area.
The shadow work and pensions secretary tweeted: “So they knew Rishi Sunak’s ‘eat out, to help out’ helped Covid spread.
“They covered it up but the truth is Sunak’s schemes meant more restrictions and a longer Leicester lockdown.”