Dominic Cummings’ time in Downing Street was a “nightmare”, Rishi Sunak appeared to tell Matt Hancock, according to the latest set of leaked WhatsApp messages.
The remarks, made on the day that the former Boris Johnson aide used an appearance in front of MPs to claim that thousands of people died needlessly during the pandemic, show Mr Sunak and Mr Hancock complaining about Mr Cummings.
Mr Hancock messaged Mr Sunak: “Of all the bonkersness about Dom’s circus, the one I enjoy most is that he’s doing this to secure his place at the heart of the future Sunak administration.”
Mr Sunak, now the British prime minister and who in 2021 was seen as ambitious for the top job, said: “Ha! Ironic given I haven’t spoken to him since he left!”
“It’s just awful & a stark reminder of how hard governing was,” Mr Hancock replies.
Mr Sunak agrees: “It was such a difficult time for all of us. A nightmare I hope we never ever have to repeat.”
The details emerged in the latest tranche of leaked messages from England's former health secretary, published by the Daily Telegraph.
The messages also show Mr Hancock’s aide, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, lashing out at Mr Cummings, on the same day he had used a parliamentary committee hearing to describe the Department of Health and Social Care as reduced to a “smoking ruin” by the pandemic.
Mr Hancock messaged: “How would you deal with this Cummings crap?”
His adviser responded: “I was about to message. What a f—ing piece of s—. You went out and backed him over Barnard castle, and he responds by briefing against you relentlessly, in private and now in public. He’s a psychotherapist.”
He swiftly corrects himself: “Psychopath.”
The British government was forced to defend Mr Cummings in a major pandemic controversy, after he drove to County Durham beauty spot Barnard Castle during the first coronavirus lockdown.
The PA news agency has contacted Mr Njoku-Goodwin for a response.
Other messages show that on a number of occasions, Mr Hancock expressed concern that Mr Sunak’s signature Eat Out to Help Out initiative was contributing to the spread of Covid-19 – dubbing it the “eat out to help the virus get about”.
The state-backed scheme offered customers a 50 per cent discount, up to £10 (€12), on meals and soft drinks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as British businesses sought to recover from the pandemic.
Concerns have been expressed subsequently that the scheme could have contributed to the spread of the virus.
In December 2020, in a conversation with an aide, Mr Hancock called the scheme “eat out to help the virus get about”.
The previous summer he had made his concerns clear to the UK's most senior civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary.
He wrote: “Just want to let you know directly that we have had lots of feedback that Eat our to help out is causing problems in our jntervention [sic] areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious.
“So please please lets not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”
The messages also show Mr Hancock attempting to get the support of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case in challenging the stance of the then-chancellor and others over certain pandemic-era rules, with the top civil servant – who is required to be politically neutral – complaining about “pure Conservative ideology” on the part of one senior minister.
In one message, Mr Hancock also accuses Mr Sunak of trying to “show ankle” to the “hard right” over his Covid-19 stance.
In another message from October 2020, Mr Hancock appears to hit out at Mr Sunak’s attitude about lockdowns, writing: “What’s Rishi’s dilemma? Whether to stop the virus, or tilt at the party & show ankle to the hard right?”
The exchanges were among more than 100,000 messages passed to the Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott.
She was originally given the material by Mr Hancock while they were collaborating on his memoir of his time in government during the pandemic.
Mr Hancock has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”.
In a statement this week, Mr Hancock said that all the materials for his book have been made available to the official Covid-19 inquiry.
Ms Oakeshott has said the disclosures are in the public interest.
The paper also published messages showing Mr Hancock and his officials scrambling to save the health secretary’s career after footage emerged of his embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: “There’s nothing new in these messages, and absolutely no public interest in publishing them given the independent inquiry has them all. It’s highly intrusive, completely inappropriate and has all been discussed endlessly before.”