Matt Hancock insists he’s not a liar and blames allegations on ‘toxic’ Dominic Cummings

Former health secretary labels Boris Johnson’s ex-adviser ‘malign actor’ – and insists ‘many lives’ could have been saved if UK had gone into lockdown earlier

Archie Mitchell,Adam Forrest
Thursday 30 November 2023 15:10 GMT
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Covid inquiry counsel clashes with Hancock: ‘Do you use the word immediate or lockdown?'

Matt Hancock today launched an extraordinary fightback against claims by Boris Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings that he had “lied his way through the pandemic” and “killed people”.

In a highly anticipated hearing at the Covid inquiry, the former health secretary attacked Mr Cummings as a “malign actor” in No 10 who had fostered a “culture of fear” across government.

He denied being a liar – a charge levelled at him at various stages of the inquiry – instead blaming the allegations on Mr Cummings creating a “toxic culture” in which ministers and officials sought to blame each other for mistakes.

Mr Hancock said “many, many lives” would have been saved if the UK had gone into the first lockdown three weeks before Mr Johnson announced it – claiming he was shut down from giving media interviews during the peak of the pandemic.

He also admitted the so-called “protective ring” he claimed to have thrown around care homes early in the crisis had been broken – insisting that he understood the hurt many people felt on the issue.

On a blockbuster day at the Covid-19 Inquiry:

  • Hancock accused Cummings of creating a “culture of fear”, abusing staff and lying to the inquiry
  • The ex-health secretary said the nation should have gone into lockdown on 2 March 2020
  • He kept concerns about Eat Out to Help Out out of the news because he believed in a “team effort”
  • Hancock denied wanting to play God after accusations he wanted to “decide who lived and who died”
  • He admitted he was not reading minutes of Sage meetings until February

The inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC grilled Mr Hancock on his claim that he first told the PM to call a national lockdown on 13 March, 2020.

Mr Keith then showed the former health secretary his own book, Pandemic Diaries, and asked why he had not made a note of the intervention at the time.

He asked: “Telling the prime minister of this country, for the first time, that he had to call an immediate lockdown, is surely worthy of some recollection, is it not?”

Former health secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence to the inquiry

Mr Hancock said since writing book, the information had “come to light” during his preparation for the inquiry. He referenced an email from himself to Mr Johnson in which he called for a “suppression strategy” to tackle the virus.

But an unimpressed Mr Keith said: “The inquiry is well aware of that email… Do you use the word immediate or lockdown?” Mr Hancock then said he was unable to answer the question as he did not have the email in front of him.

Rebuking Mr Hancock’s account in an attack on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Cummings said he was “outright lying” by claiming to have privately Mr Johnson to impose the measure and “talking rubbish” to the inquiry.

But Mr Hancock went on to claim that “many, many lives” would have been saved if the nation should have gone into lockdown on 2 March 2020 – instead of three weeks later on 23 March 2020.

He claimed that Downing Street officials stopped Mr Johnson from saying anything publicly about the virus during in February 2020, and also claimed he was not allowed to give interviews on the subject.

The ex-health secretary was told on the evening of 27 February that based on figures at the time there was a “reasonable worst-case scenario of just over half a million people dying”.

But at the time, the senior MP claimed, he was “still not being allowed to communicate” and was “not able to go on ... certain radio shows including the Today programme”.

Dominic Cummings accused Hancock of ‘outright lying’

Mr Hancock also told the inquiry that kept his concerns about then-chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme “out of the news” in the late summer of 2020 as he believed government is a “team effort”.

The ex-secretary was grilled about a WhatsApp exchange from August 2020 with the Cabinet secretary Simon Case, in which he said the scheme was “causing problems in our intervention areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious”.

Asked why he protected any damaging information about the restaurant discount – aimed at getting people out and spending money again – Mr Hancock said: “I believe that government is a team effort. And so I didn’t want that to become a row in public.”

The ex-secretary said was not told about Mr Sunak’s scheme until the day the scheme was announced, by which time it was a “done deal”.

Mr Hancock also admitted the so-called “protective ring” he said had been put around care homes early in the crisis was not an unbroken one – as he insisted that he understood the hurt many people felt on the issue.

Questioned about the phrase he used in May 2020, Mr Hancock said he had been “trying to simply summarise that we had taken action” – before agreeing with the inquiry counsel that the processes put in place “did not form an unbroken circle”.

The inquiry also heard that Mr Hancock’s then-media adviser had warned him there might be a problem with the accuracy of the minister having told Mr Johnson that care homes had been “locked down” before the rest of the country.

A WhatsApp message from the adviser on May 13 said: “Matt, we might have some issues with you telling the PM we ‘locked down’ care homes before the rest of the country.” But Mr Hancock told the inquiry: “It depends on how you define locked down.”

Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme under the spotlight again

Mr Hancock launched into a wider attack on Mr Cummings, blaming the former Johnson adviser for the dysfunction that plagued the government throughout the pandemic.

He said that the removal of Sajid Javid as chancellor in February 2020, orchestrated by Mr Cummings, fostered a “culture of fear” which hamstrung the government.

“It inculcated a culture of fear. Whereas what we needed was a culture where everybody was brought to the table and given their heads to do their level best in a once in a generation crisis,” he told the inquiry.

Mr Hancock went on to claim Mr Cummings “did not regard ministers as a valuable contribution to decision-making” and circumvented emergency Cobra meetings to discuss the pandemic.

nstead, he held his own meetings where he even claimed “decisions don’t need to go to the prime minister”, Mr Hancock said. “Now that is inappropriate in a democracy, and I saw it simply as essentially a power grab.”

He also described Mr Cummings as a “malign influence” in government who had “abused” his staff and made work during the pandemic “unpleasant”.

“It was unpleasant for a whole load of my staff as well, who were subject to this sort of abuse from the chief adviser [Mr Cummings,” Mr Hancock said. “It went wider than I thought at the time,” he added.

And Mr Hancock denied a suggestion by the former NHS boss Simon Stevens that he wanted to decide who would live or die if the health service became overwhelmed.

The former health secretary said that after a tabletop exercise to plan for the pandemic the NHS asked “how to prioritise when there is insufficient capacity”.

Mr Hancock said: “I concluded that it should be for clinicians, not for ministers to make a decision on this basis… the minutes are really clear on that.”

And he admitted that he did not read minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) until February.

Mr Keith asked whether anyone knew that the health seceretary was not reading the minutes, to which Mr Hancock replied: “I don’t know.” Mr Cummings mocked Mr Hancock for the admission, saying it “explains a lot”.

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