Ministers and senior officials joked about locking up travellers arriving in the UK in quarantine hotels during the Covid pandemic, leaked text shows.
Simon Case, the country’s top civil servant, asked about how many people were ‘locked up’ and joked about arrivals being put in ‘shoe box’ rooms.
In messages to former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, leaked to The Telegraph, Mr Case said he wanted to ‘see some of the faces’ of those moving from first class plane seats into small hotel rooms.
The exchanges were at a time when passengers coming from countries deemed to have high levels of Covid were forced to isolated in a quarantine managed hotel for 10 days — at a cost of up to £2,285.
Simon Case, the country’s top civil servant, asked about how many people were ‘locked up’ and joked about arrivals being put in ‘shoe box’ rooms
The tranche of more than 100,000 WhatsApps were passed to The Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott (right), who was given the material by former Health Secretary Matt Hancock (left) when they were working together on his book Pandemic Diaries
In one exchange with Cabinet Secretary Mr Case on February 5 2021, the then health secretary said ‘we are giving big families all the big suites and putting pop stars in the box rooms’. Mr Case replied: ‘I just want to see some of the faces of people coming out of first class into a premier inn shoe box’
A few days later, on February 16, Mr Case asked how many people had been ‘locked up’ in hotels the previous day. Mr Hancock responded: ‘None. But 149 chose to enter the country and are now in Quarantine Hotels due to their own free will!’ to which Mr Case replied: ‘Hilarious’
The messages are latest to be published after a tranche of more than 100,000 WhatsApps were passed to The Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who was given the material by Mr Hancock when they were working together on his book Pandemic Diaries.
Mr Hancock introduced hotel quarantine rules in February 2021 when it was illegal to travel abroad outside of narrow exceptions.
Passengers told of chaotic organisation, ‘prison-like’ conditions and inedible food at the hotels, where security guards accompanied those who left their rooms.
Arrivals faced fines of up to £10,000 if they failed to quarantine at a Government-approved hotel.
In one exchange with Cabinet Secretary Mr Case on February 5 2021, the then health secretary said ‘we are giving big families all the big suites and putting pop stars in the box rooms’.
Mr Case replied: ‘I just want to see some of the faces of people coming out of first class into a premier inn shoe box.’
A few days later, on February 16, Mr Case asked how many people had been ‘locked up’ in hotels the previous day.
Mr Hancock responded: ‘None. But 149 chose to enter the country and are now in Quarantine Hotels due to their own free will!’ to which Mr Case replied: ‘Hilarious.’
Messages between the pair on August 28 2020 also suggested Mr Hancock wanted to ‘get heavy with the police’ over the enforcement of lockdown regulations.
This is despite ministers claiming at the time that the police were operationally independent of the Government.
After one meeting with Boris Johnson on January 10 2021, he informed Mr Case: ‘The plod got their marching orders.’
The meeting was attended by Boris Johnson, then home secretary Priti Patel and Mr Case, who is now the Cabinet Secretary.
Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, today said that the police ‘won’t be surprised’ at the tone of Mr Hancock’s messages.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think lots of people in the police service won’t be surprised at the tone of these remarks.
‘There was this constant confusion between what was legislation and what was guidance. Often it seemed ministers themselves didn’t understand the impact of the legislation.’
It caused ‘huge resentment within policing’ when cases of officers ‘trying to do their best’ were ‘highlighted and misunderstood’, Sir Peter added.
Mr Hancock has described the leak of tens of thousands of messages by Ms Oakeshott as a ‘massive betrayal’ used to produce ‘a partial, biased account to suit an anti-lockdown agenda’.
But Ms Oakeshott today insisted that disclosing the messages was ‘in the overwhelming public interest’.
She told BBC Breakfast that the UK Covid inquiry — which is looking into the country’s preparedness for the pandemic, decision making and the impact of the crisis on the NHS — will not produce answers for potentially up to 10 years.
‘It is in the overwhelming public interest against that backdrop to release as much information as can be found about what happened and why, because another pandemic could happen at any point and I don’t think there should be a repeat of the disasters of lockdown,’ she said.
Asked if she had been thinking about releasing the messages while writing Mr Hancock’s book, Ms Oakeshott said: ‘If you’re asking me was I secretly plotting to do something quite different at the end of the project, the answer to that is no.
‘If you’re asking me was I as a journalist intrigued about what else might be lurking in there, the answer is yes.
‘I don’t think any journalist, particularly not any political journalist, who cares about what has happened to this country and what happened during the pandemic would be worth their name as a journalist if they didn’t look through those messages.’
KEY CLAIMS OF THE LOCKDOWN FILES INVESTIGATION
A fresh cache of 100,000 text and WhatsApp messages leaked to the Daily Telegraph by the ex-journalist who ghost-wrote Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries claimed:
- Matt Hancock rejected the Chief Medical Officer’s call to test all residents going into English care homes for Covid
- A minister in Mr Hancock’s department said restrictions on visitors to care homes were ‘inhumane’, but residents remained isolated many months on
- Mr Hancock’s adviser arranged for a personal test to be couriered for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s child at a time of national shortage
- Mr Hancock told former chancellor George Osborne, then editor of the Evening Standard, ‘I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!’ as he pushed for favourable front-page coverage
- Mr Hancock allegedly met his 100,000-tests-a-day target by counting kits that were despatched before the deadline but might never be processed
- Social care minister Helen Whately told Mr Hancock the testing system was ‘definitely working’ after she managed to secure a test ‘just’ 50 miles from where she lived.
- Mr Osborne warned Mr Hancock that ‘no one thinks testing is going well’ in late 2020
- The then prime minister, Boris Johnson, revealed he was going ‘quietly crackers’ about the UK’s shortage of test kits
- Face masks were introduced in school hallways and communal areas after the PM was told it would avoid an ‘argument’ with Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon
- Matt Hancock took ‘rearguard’ action to close schools after former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson persuaded the PM to keep them open in January 2021
- Sir Gavin said teachers were looking for an ‘excuse’ not to work during the pandemic
- Ministers said there was ‘no robust rationale’ for imposing the ‘rule of six’ on children, but did it anyway
- Pupils with false positive results on a lateral flow test had to isolate at home for ten days, even when they tested negative on a PCR, to avoid ‘unpicking’ the policy
- Mr Johnson feared that he ‘blinked too soon’ in plunging the UK into a second Covid lockdown after being warned that gloomy modelling which bounced him into the move was ‘very wrong’
- Mr Johnson was eager to ease curbs on retail, hospitality and gatherings in June 2020 but was told he was ‘too far ahead of public opinion’
- Mr Hancock and top civil servant Simon Case joked about travellers ‘locked up’ in quarantine hotels during Covid lockdown
- Mr Hancock said the Government should ‘get heavy with the police’ to help crack down on Covid lockdown rulebreakers
- Mr Hancock’s team asked if they could ‘lock up’ Nigel Farage after he posted a video of himself in a pub when they suspected he was in breach of rules