Matt Hancock was told by the Cabinet Office to tone down claims in his book that a Wuhan lab leak started the pandemic over fears it would “cause problems” with China.
The former health secretary wanted to include in his Pandemic Diaries book that the Chinese government’s explanation “just doesn’t fly”, the latest messages leaked to The Telegraph revealed.
Beijing has insisted that the virus was discovered in a wet market in Wuhan and that it was a coincidence this was near a government science lab.
Mr Hancock’s draft memoir, written with journalist Isabel Oakeshott who leaked his messages to the Telegraph, said: “Given how cagey the Chinese have been, I think we have to treat their official version of events – still the Wuhan thing – with considerable scepticism.
“Imagine there was an outbreak of a deadly new virus in Wiltshire and we shrugged off the fact that the outbreak ‘just so happened’ to be near a little place called Porton Down. We’d be laughed out of town.”
Correspondence shows the Cabinet Office told Mr Hancock last year the government’s official position was that it was “entirely coincidental” the outbreak occurred in the market, adding: “This is highly sensitive and would cause problems if released.”
He was told including a different narrative risked “damaging national security” and was asked to water down his view that “global fear of the Chinese must not get in the way of a full investigation into what happened”.
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The WhatsApp leak about the government’s position insisting the location of the COVID outbreak was “entirely coincidental” is the first time the British government has commented on the lab leak claims.
It is in contrast to what the US government has been saying recently, with the theory rearing its head again as a report from the US energy department last month said the virus most likely leaked from a Wuhan lab.
At the beginning of March, the director of the FBI also said the agency believes the virus “most likely” came from a “lab incident in Wuhan”.
Civil servants also deemed Mr Hancock’s reference to the Ministry of Defence’s laboratory Porton Down as “damaging to national security” due to the Russians accusing the British government of carrying out the poisoning of ex-Soviet spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, which is close to Porton Down.
In the final version of Pandemic Diaries, the section was almost entirely removed and it instead says: “Though the international consensus and the government’s position is that the virus originated at the Wuhan wet market, I remain sceptical.
“There must be a full investigation into what happened.”
All former ministers have to submit their manuscripts for books they are writing to the Cabinet Office to be reviewed before they can be published.
Once Mr Hancock made the suggested changes the book was signed off for publication by Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, in November last year.