Matt Hancock wanted to 'frighten the pants off everyone' during pandemic

Matt Hancock told aides he wanted to “frighten the pants off everyone” to ensure compliance with lockdown restrictions, it has been revealed.

The messages leaked to the Telegraph by TalkTV's Isabel Oakeshott show how Mr Hancock and others discussed how to use an announcement about a variant of Covid to scare the public into changing their behaviour.

The messages also reveal discussions over when to “deploy” details of a new strain of the virus.

The exchanges reveal that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case suggested in January 2021 that the “fear” factor would be “vital” in stopping the spread of the virus.

In December 2020, the exchanges show concern that London Mayor Sadiq Khan could follow the example of Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who had clashed with the Government over the decision to impose stringent lockdown restrictions on the region.

Mr Hancock’s adviser said: “Rather than doing too much forward signalling, we can roll pitch with the new strain.”

“We frighten the pants of everyone with the new strain,” the then-health secretary responded.

“But the complication with that Brexit is taking the top line,” he said, in an apparent reference to media coverage of the UK’s EU exit.

“Yep that’s what will get proper behaviour change,” the adviser said.

“When do we deploy the new variant,” Hancock said.

This conversation, on 13 December 2020, came amid concerns about the rapid spread of the virus in southeast England.

Mr Hancock announced that a new Covid variant had been identified in the UK on 14 December. Five days later, it was declared that London and southeast England had to enter a new tier 4 alert level.

The then prime minister Boris Johnson also cancelled a promised Christmas “bubbles” policy allowing families to meet. The entirety of England entered the third national lockdown on 6 January 2021.

Mr Hancock has called the leak of these WhatsApp messages by Ms Oakeshott a "massive betrayal" designed to support an "anti-lockdown agenda".