Isabel Oakeshott has admitted to breaking a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Matt Hancock by leaking his WhatsApp messages from the pandemic to a newspaper – but she insisted it was “not a personal thing”.
The first story from the tranche of messages broke last night in the Telegraph, alleging the former health secretary had rejected testing advice on care homes and expressed concern it could get in the way of meeting his targets.
The MP strongly denied the “distorted account”, with a spokesman alleging the conversations had been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
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A source close to Mr Hancock also claimed the journalist “had broken a legal NDA”, adding: “Her behaviour is outrageous.”
Speaking to TalkTV in her first interview since the article was published, Ms Oakeshott – who received the messages from Mr Hancock while working on his memoir with him – said she had signed an NDA and chose to break it “in the public interest” as it could be “a decade” before the official inquiry into COVID reports back.
She said: “The public interest is overwhelming. Whenever you break a big story which is in the national interest… it can be a rocky road, it can be a bumpy ride.
“I know I am going to get a few knocks over this [but] I am prepared to do this because I think the national interest is so utterly compelling.”
The journalist added: “This for me is not a personal thing about Matt Hancock.”
‘Many more to come’
Earlier on Wednesday, the chair of the COVID inquiry, Lady Hallett, insisted it would “not drag on for decades” and “there will be no whitewash”.
The lead counsel of official COVID Inquiry Hugo Keith also said they were already aware of the WhatsApps, having received messages from over 60 groups across Whitehall – including from government departments, individual ministers and civil servants, scientists and special advisers – after requesting their disclosure last September.
He added that there would be “many more to come” and that the material they had requested “goes very much further” than the newspaper report.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it was not launching an investigation into the huge leak “at this stage”, citing journalistic exemptions in the public interest.
Mr Hancock is considering legal action against the Telegraph.
Earlier, the allegations were raised multiple times in the Commons, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer saying families whose loved ones died of COVID would view the leaked messages as an “insulting and ghoulish spectacle”.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, he said the “country deserves better” and called on Rishi Sunak to ensure the official COVID inquiry had no more delays.
Mr Sunak insisted the official inquiry was the “right way” to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic rather than relying on “piecemeal bits of information”.
Later in the day, Labour’s shadow social care minister, Liz Kendall, asked an urgent question about the article’s claims, saying: “We need more humility and less celebrity from the member for West Suffolk and above all we need answers.”
Health minister Helen Whately told MPs the “importance of testing was never in doubt” but added “tough decisions about prioritisation had to be made”.
She said “selective snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and at times misleading insight into the machinery of government at the time”, and the COVID inquiry was the right path forward.