Covid inquiry: Matt Hancock bemoans ‘toxic culture’ at heart of Government

The former miniser denied there had been ‘absence of a plan’ and insisted his department did ‘rise to the challenge’ of the pandemic.

Nina Lloyd
Thursday 30 November 2023 12:46 GMT
Matt Hancock is giving evidence to the inquiry throughout Thursday (Yui Mok/PA)
Matt Hancock is giving evidence to the inquiry throughout Thursday (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

Matt Hancock has defended his record as health secretary, hitting out at a “toxic culture” and “deep unpleasantness” at the heart of Government during the pandemic.

The former minister denied there had been “absence of a plan” and insisted his department “rose to the challenge” of responding to the biggest public health crisis in a century as he gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Extracts from former chief scientific adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries read out by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC complained of a “massive internal mess inside DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) and PHE (Public Health England)”.

They recorded that then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill said there was a “clear lack of grip in DHSC”.

In response, Mr Hancock told the inquiry: “It’s normal for the centre, the Cabinet Office, to be sceptical of departments.”

He added: “I think that the toxic culture that you’ve seen at the centre of Government, that’s been the subject of much discussion, was unhelpful in assuming that when anything was difficult or a challenge, therefore there was somehow fault and blame.

“That’s a part of the toxic culture that we have seen and some of these exhibits that you’ve just shown demonstrate a lack of generosity or empathy and understanding the difficulty of rising to such a big challenge.”

While he accepted DHSC had not got everything right, he said his department had “effectively” tried to “raise the alarm” as early as January, but its concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been.

“We were on occasions blocked,” he told the inquiry.

Mr Hancock said he and the DHSC faced “deep unpleasantness” from the centre of Government during the early months of the pandemic while the rest of Whitehall was slow to react.

“A healthy culture involves scepticism, an unhealthy culture involves false allegations and extremely unpleasant language,” he said.

He acknowledged that the DHSC ended up changing its approach to the pandemic, but insisted that even if there had been the “perfect” plan in place, it would still have had to shift and strengthen its operation given the uncertainty surrounding its development.

Questioned about preparedness, Mr Hancock said: “I take issue with ‘absence of a plan’. There wasn’t absence of a plan, there were plans. I’ve critiqued the plans, I’ve said that they weren’t adequate but there were plans in place.”

He cited the 2011 pandemic plan and the sickness exercise carried out while Jeremy Hunt was health secretary as examples.

Mr Hancock, who has been repeatedly criticised by a number of other witnesses, will appear before Baroness Heather Hallett’s inquiry for the whole of Thursday.

His new witness statement is 176 pages long, Mr Keith said.

The former Tory MP, who now sits as an independent after losing the party whip for appearing on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity reality TV show, played a key role in the UK’s pandemic response.

But various witnesses have expressed concern about his approach, with the inquiry hearing that the country’s most senior civil servant at the time, Lord Sedwill, wanted Mr Hancock sacked.

The inquiry heard that in one WhatsApp exchange with the permanent secretary at Number 10 Simon Case – who is the current Cabinet Secretary – Lord Sedwill joked it was necessary to remove Mr Hancock to “save lives and protect the NHS”.

WhatsApp messages shared with the inquiry also revealed that former top Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings repeatedly pushed Boris Johnson to fire the former minister.

At one stage, Mr Cummings claimed Mr Hancock had “lied his way through this and killed people and dozens and dozens of people have seen it”.

Helen MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary, also claimed in her evidence that Mr Hancock displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence and a pattern of reassuring colleagues the pandemic was being dealt with in ways that were not true.

Sir Christopher Wormald, a senior civil servant in the Department of Health, suggested it was a “very small number of people” claiming that the minister was “actually telling untruths”.

But he added that there were a lot who thought he was “overoptimistic” and “overpromised” on what could be delivered.

In WhatsApp messages shown to the inquiry on Thursday, former prime minister Mr Johnson praised Mr Hancock’s performance on March 7 2020.

“You are doing great, keep going,” he wrote.

Mr Johnson will give evidence over two days next week, the inquiry confirmed on Thursday morning.

He will appear on Wednesday and Thursday and is expected to face detailed questioning of the way his No 10 operation ran, following a series of criticisms from witnesses – not least his former top adviser Mr Cummings.

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