Isabel Oakeshott in Radio 4 clash with Nick Robinson over Matt Hancock

Isabel Oakeshott clashes with Nick Robinson on Radio 4 as she defends leaking Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp as the ex-Health Secretary denies sending her ‘threatening message’

  • Journalist Ms Oakeshott co-wrote former Health Secretary’s pandemic diaries
  • But she insisted this morning her responsibilities ‘are now to the public interest’ 

The journalist who leaked Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages today clashed with Nick Robinson on Radio 4 as she defended the public disclosure.

Isabel Oakeshott, who was given access to the messages when she co-wrote the former Health Secretary’s pandemic diaries, told the Today programme her responsibilities ‘are now to the public interest’.

The reporter doubled-down on her claim that Mr Hancock sent her a ‘threatening’ message following the publication in the Daily Telegraph – though he firmly denies this, insisting he messaged her to say it was ‘a big mistake – nothing more’.

In a statement this morning, Mr Hancock said he is ‘hugely disappointed’ by what he said was a ‘massive betrayal and breach of trust by Isabel Oakeshott’ and apologised for the impact of the release of the messages on those he had worked with during the pandemic.

His comments came just minutes after a fiery exchange between Ms Oakeshott and broadcaster Mr Robinson, in which she outlined her reasons for publishing the exchanges. 

Isabel Oakeshott, who co-wrote the former Health Secretary’s pandemic diaries, told the Today programme her responsibilities ‘are now to the public interest’

Matt Hancock attends a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in 2021

She said: ‘This is about the millions of people, every one of us in this country, that were adversely affected by the catastrophic decisions to lock down this country repeatedly, often on the flimsiest of evidence, for political reasons.

‘Not one journalist worth their salt would sit on a cache of information in such an important matter, such a historic matter and cover that up. 

‘Do you know what would have happened if I hadn’t released this stuff? The usual suspects would have had a massive go at me for sitting on these files, wouldn’t they? We know that.’

Mr Hancock gave the messages to Ms Oakeshott as they collaborated on his memoirs, but she subsequently handed them to the Daily Telegraph, which has published a series of stories based on the correspondence with fellow ministers and officials. 

Asked by Mr Robinson why she had broken the former health secretary’s trust, Ms Oakeshott said: ‘I would describe myself as somebody who is acting in the overwhelming national interest. 

‘Do you know what I’m not going to do, because it wouldn’t be pretty, is get involved in a slanging match with Matt Hancock. 

‘He can threaten me all he likes, there are plenty of things I can say about his behaviour by the way that I’m not going to do, at least a this stage, because this is not about Matt Hancock, it is so much bigger than that. Trust me, there’s plenty I can say.’

Ms Oakeshott also told the programme how the release of the messages represented an ‘acceleration’ of the public inquiry into the pandemic and how it was handled, which she said was ‘a lifetime’s work’.

She said: ‘The judge in charge of the inquiry is an extraordinarily well-respected figure, I in no way mean to disparage her, I’m sure she will do a brilliant job. 

‘The issue is the remit which is absolutely enormous. I don’t know if you’ve looked at it, I have, I would say that’s a lifetime’s work. 

‘It is completely unrealistic to expect any answers if that remit is carried out as described within the next decade. What needs to happen is the acceleration of that.

‘Sweden managed to wrap up its inquiry last year. We need, as Keir Starmer said in the House of Commons yesterday…for this to wrap up by the end of this year, that is a realistic time-frame.

‘Let me very clear, there were 2.3 million words [within the text messages]. I was trying to write a book in an extraordinarily tight deadline…that was twice the length of a standard political book. 

‘There is no way I could have gone through 2.3 million words, and you can imagine, knowing that was what I had, how hard it’s going to be for a public inquiry.’

The former health secretary was at the centre of a growing political storm following the unprecedented leak of 100,000 WhatsApp messages, some of which are recreated here

Since the unprecedented leak of 100,000 messages, the former health secretary has been at the centre of a growing political storm, which is likely to see the release of private discussions involving dozens of ministers and officials.

Mr Hancock came under immediate fire from bereaved families after messages were released suggesting he had rejected official advice to test all residents going into care homes – a claim he hotly disputes.

In a statement this morning, Mr Hancock said: ‘I am hugely disappointed and sad at the massive betrayal and breach of trust by Isabel Oakeshott. 

‘I am also sorry for the impact on the very many people – political colleagues, civil servants and friends – who worked hard with me to get through the pandemic and save lives.

‘There is absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach. All the materials for the book have already been made available to the Inquiry, which is the right, and only, place for everything to be considered properly and the right lessons to be learned. 

‘As we have seen, releasing them in this way gives a partial, biased account to suit an anti-lockdown agenda.

‘Isabel and I had worked closely together for more than a year on my book, based on legal confidentiality and a process approved by the Cabinet Office. 

‘Isabel repeatedly reiterated the importance of trust throughout, and then broke that trust.

‘Last night, I was accused of sending menacing messages to Isabel. This is also wrong. 

‘When I heard confused rumours of a publication late on Tuesday night, I called and messaged Isabel to ask her if she had ‘any clues’ about it, and got no response. 

‘When I then saw what she’d done, I messaged to say it was ‘a big mistake’. Nothing more.

‘I will not be commenting further on any other stories or false allegations that Isabel will make. 

‘I will respond to the substance in the appropriate place, at the inquiry, so that we can properly learn all the lessons based on a full and objective understanding of what happened in the pandemic, and why.’

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