Matt Hancock loses battle to keep his real Covid diaries secret
Information Commissioner’s Office sides with us after two-year battle to find out what Hancock really did in 2020
The government must publish Matt Hancock’s real pandemic diary despite waging a two-year battle against openDemocracy to keep it under lock and key, the transparency watchdog has ruled.
It is a second blow to government secrecy in a week, after the official inquiry into the UK’s handling of Covid-19 demanded ministers’ WhatsApp messages be handed over.
openDemocracy has been trying to obtain the former health secretary’s official ministerial diary from the pandemic since March 2021, alongside those of his colleagues in the cabinet at the time. Covid killed at least 200,000 Brits, disproportionately affecting frontline workers and minority groups, and left many people battling viral fatigue or facing financial ruin.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has repeatedly rejected our Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, claiming they are “vexatious”. In the meantime, Hancock has published his own unverified personal memoir about the pandemic, and seen his WhatsApp messages leaked by its ghost writer.
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Families who lost loved ones during the pandemic have previously called the refusal to release Hancock’s official ministerial diary – which could shed light on who the health secretary met and listened to as Covid-19 gripped the country – “as disgraceful as it is farcical”.
But now the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ruled that the DHSC must give us Hancock’s diaries for the period 1 February to 1 July 2020.
Our campaign to obtain diaries for the ministers in office during the early part of the pandemic saw the Department for Education release part of former education secretary Gavin Williamson’s diary last year. They revealed a series of previously undisclosed meetings and calls.
openDemocracy also obtained diary entries from Dominic Raab’s time as foreign secretary during the 2021 Afghanistan crisis. Raab had previously defended his decision to go on holiday as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, saying he continued working from a luxury seaside resort. But his diaries revealed that his workload was significantly reduced around that time.
During the ICO’s investigation, the DHSC claimed that complying with openDemocracy’s FOI request would “place an unreasonable and significant burden on its time and resources”.
But the ICO disagreed with how the DHSC’s time estimates when reviewing diary entries. The ICO also disagreed with the DHSC that our FOI request “lack[ed] focus and purpose”, recognising that the request was “focused on the run up to the first lockdown and management of Matt Hancock’s time and resource throughout it”.
FOI expert and author Martin Rosenbaum said: “This is a welcome decision by the ICO, who were absolutely right to dismiss the obstructive and exaggerated claims made by the department.
“The period involved was a crucial phase in the health and welfare of the nation, and the public should know how Matt Hancock was allocating his time and what meetings and activities he was prioritising. How ministers decide to focus their efforts is an essential factor in determining government policy and actions. Given that he himself has given his own account in his book, the rest of us are entitled to see the fuller picture of events which should be provided by official records.
“The ICO ruling reveals how the department tried to inflate its own time estimate and bring in irrelevancies, in a futile attempt to overstate how long it would take to process what is a very useful request in the public interest. In future the department's officials would make better use of their own time if they devote it to answering reasonable requests efficiently, rather than contriving distorted reasons to delay and block them.”
The DHSC must disclose the information within 35 days, but the department can appeal against the decision. The ICO ruled that some elements of the diaries are allowed to be redacted, such as personal information.
The department did not respond to a request for comment.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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