Matt Hancock was told by senior Whitehall officials to tone down claims in his memoir that Covid-19 may have begun with a lab leak in China, according to leaked correspondence.
The former health secretary wrote in the original manuscript for his Pandemic Diaries that it was ‘just too much of a coincidence’ the pandemic started in a market not far from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
According to the Telegraph, which has obtained tens of thousands of Mr Hancock’s messages, he had wanted to say that ‘given how cagey the Chinese have been’ their official version of events should be treated with ‘considerable scepticism’.
But officials warned the claims would ‘cause problems’ with Beijing and insisted he must make clear he was not reflecting the Government’s view, the newspaper reports.
The changes to the book were made after Mr Hancock submitted the manuscript to the Cabinet Office for review last year – a procedure all former ministers are obliged to follow.
In response, the department wrote: ‘This is highly sensitive and would cause problems if released.
‘Must be clearer that it is supposition rather than revealing any confidential information received from inside government. Should also be clear that this is not HMG views or beliefs.’
It also expressed concern about proposed comparisons in the book between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Ministry of Defence’s research laboratories at Porton Down.
The Cabinet Office worried it could be seized on by the Russians, who had previously claimed the novichok nerve agent used in the Salisbury poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal originated at Porton Down.
‘The reference to Porton Down is damaging to national security – what is set up as a joke, is one of the attack lines Russia has used against us for the novichok poisoning, as it is only a few miles from Porton Down to Salisbury (which is entirely coincidental – as, we believe, it is that the Wuhan lab is so close to where the first Covid outbreak was recorded),’ it said.
The disclosure comes after the head of the FBI said last week the agency had assessed that Covid was ‘most likely’ the result of a lab leak.
In response to the Telegraph report, a Government spokesman said: ‘We would not comment on leaks or private discussions.’
A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said: ‘Matt will categorically not comment on national security matters.
‘The release of this material shows yet again that this unlawful leak of partial information is motivated only by money and an attempt to spin a biased narrative.
‘This is completely against the public interest, which will be served by the public inquiry.’