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Government defies watchdog order to hand over Hancock’s Covid diaries

Department of Health and Social Care may be held in contempt of court for missing information commissioner’s deadline

Ruby Lott-Lavigna Jenna Corderoy
31 May 2023, 4.16pm

Matt Hancock's ministerial diaries have been handed over to the inquiry, but not to journalists.


Isabel Infantes / AFP via Getty Images

The government faces a fresh fight over key Covid documents after ignoring an order from the information watchdog to hand over Matt Hancock’s official diaries.

As the Cabinet Office battles to hide Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp and diaries from the official Covid-19 inquiry, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has missed a legal deadline to disclose Matt Hancock’s ministerial diaries to openDemocracy. It could leave the department in contempt of court.

Health chiefs have spent more than two years fighting our Freedom of Information request for Hancock’s diaries, which could reveal whose advice he sought and who had his ear during the initial stages of the pandemic. The former health secretary published his own edited diaries of the period last year.

Last month the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ruled that the department had until 29 May to hand them over. That deadline has now passed without the diaries being handed over and a spokesperson confirmed to openDemocracy that the watchdog was “making enquiries with DHSC to ascertain why it has not complied with or appealed the decision notice within the statutory timeframe”.

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It is not known whether the DHSC was willing to give Hancock’s diaries to the official Covid inquiry, where they could be used to scrutinise the government’s handling of the pandemic.

But Hancock told openDemocracy that he had personally given the diaries, along with WhatsApp messages and other materials, to the inquiry. It raises questions about why the department is continuing to withhold their release to journalists.

A spokesperson for the former health secretary added: “Matt has made all his records and materials available to the inquiry without making any redactions for relevance. Matt feels very strongly that full transparency is vital so all lessons can be learned.”

The DHSC did not respond to requests for comment.

Analysis: If Matt Hancock is more transparent than the government, we’re all damned

For obvious reasons, I’m not in the habit of picking holes in openDemocracy’s journalism, writes Ramzy Alwakeel.

But I can hear the questions some will probably ask about our latest revelation regarding the official Covid inquiry.

If Matt Hancock has already voluntarily submitted his own diaries to the inquiry, these people might say, what does it matter that openDemocracy doesn’t have them? Do we think we’re more important than the inquiry that bereaved families fought to secure, an inquiry that will sit for years and hear thousands of hours of evidence and that has the legal power to compel disclosure?

What does it matter so long as the truth of what ministers did during the pandemic comes out one way or another? What does it matter if the Department for Health and Social Care, whose handling of Covid-19 played such a pivotal role in determining who lived and died and got sick, has spent taxpayers’ money on legal advice and administrative work in order to hold onto a document that may well not even reveal anything interesting?

It matters because there will not always be a public inquiry, or a former minister with very little left to lose who is no longer answerable to the party line.

It matters because the 74,000 Brits whose deaths have been linked to Covid since my colleague Jenna Corderoy submitted her initial Freedom of Information request did not have the luxury of waiting for the inquiry to begin.

And it matters because of what it tells us about the importance of accountability to the people who hold our lives in their hands.

Even at a time when the government’s refusal to play ball with the official Covid inquiry is making headlines, the Department for Health and Social Care is so unrepentant about information transparency that it would rather put itself in contempt of court than hand over the documents.

If an order by the information watchdog means nothing even in these most exceptional of circumstances, the public has lost – perhaps never had – the ability to hold the government to account through its rulings and hearings. If health chiefs will cover up something that is going to come out anyway, how can we trust their handling of more sensitive documents?

It is crucial that the Information Commissioner’s Office retains the trust of the public. It must show the DHSC, and other departments, that there are consequences for disregarding its orders.

And the inquiry, for its own part, should be scrutinising the government’s information handling as part of its official investigations. That, too, is part of the story of the pandemic.

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