Covid-19 may be a man-made virus that made it difficult to prepare for the pandemic, Michael Gove has suggested.
The Levelling-Up Secretary, who was Cabinet Office minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when the pandemic began in 2020, said dealing with such a “novel” virus presented “new challenges” that required new science.
He said: “We were not well prepared as we should have been ideally.
“[There is] a significant body of judgment that believes that the virus itself was man-made and that presents sort of challenges as well.”
Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, warned Mr Gove that the issue was “somewhat divisive” and not part of the inquiry’s terms of reference.
But Downing Street called on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “consider all possible avenues” and said there was “still work to be done” on finding the origins of the pandemic.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Government’s view is that the WHO needs to continue to examine all possibilities.”
The debate over the origins of Covid-19 has proved contentious since the first cases emerged just eight miles from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) where scientists had been experimenting with Sars-like coronaviruses.
An initial WHO investigation ruled that the virus had most likely jumped from animals to humans, but the head of the investigation later admitted his team had been pressured by China into ruling out a lab leak.
Beijing denies any wrongdoing, claiming inquiries are politically motivated, but has blocked attempts to access laboratories, research notebooks or sample databases.
Earlier this year, a US Senate report into the origins concluded that evidence pointed to an “unintentional research-related incident” and the US recently stripped WIV of its funding for conducting dangerous experiments into coronaviruses before the pandemic.
Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, praised Mr Gove for raising the issue even though doing so earned him a rebuke from the inquiry’s counsel.
He said: “If the purpose of this review is to learn lessons, one of those lessons must be how do you handle a man-made virus that originates in an authoritarian state.
“This is what Britain should do - ask those difficult questions and step up. Now that this question is out of the box it does make one wonder why it wasn’t part of the original terms of reference.”
The Covid Inquiry’s terms of reference only focus on the “preparations and response to the pandemic” in Britain, and not examining the origins of the virus.
But biosecurity experts said it was dangerous for the inquiry to ignore the issue.
Hamish de Bretton Gordon, an expert on chemical and biological counter-terrorism, and former British Army officer, said: “The fact we do not know the origins more than three years later is not great.”
“The chance of a man-made virus in future is so high, and so likely, that we can’t wait until the end of the inquiry to take action.”
Bob Seely, a member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, also accused the investigation of being more interested in “some absurd Boris soap opera” than the truth.
“If this was a man-made virus or a human manipulated virus which made it more contagious it raises massive questions about the storage of viruses globally,” he said.
“What is shocking and useless about this ridiculous Covid Inquiry is that they’re more interested in Downing Street tittle tattle than the question of did it leak and was it man-made.”
Relations with China, which were frosty under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, have thawed somewhat since Rishi Sunak took charge at No 10, leading to growing security concerns.
They are likely to improve further following the appointment of Lord Cameron, the new Foreign Secretary, who has close links with Beijing, and under his premiership, ushered in the so-called “golden era” in Anglo-Chinese relations.
Lord Cameron’s close ties have raised eyebrows in some quarters, with the former prime minister urged to declare the money he has earned while working for Chinese interests.
Giving evidence on Tuesday, Mr Gove also clashed with Baroness Hallett, the chair of the inquiry, after he claimed the proceedings were biassed and preoccupied with unimportant detail.
Mr Gove queried the “curious” direction of questioning and was accused of making a “threat” towards Mr Keith over comments that he could only answer a question at some length to answer it properly.
Earlier Mr Gove’s evidence became heated over the issues of lifting restrictions for shooting and relations with the Scottish and Welsh governments.
Lady Hallett said: “Can I assure you and others that I don’t have any settled views as yet, I will not reach any conclusion until I have considered all the evidence.”
Mr Gove replied that he knew the inquiry counsel and Lady Hallett took their roles seriously but added: “My only concern was, and you have been very clear about this, that the nature of questioning here might give some watching our proceedings, the sense that the issues that are highlighted to you are among the most important.”
Mr Gove also defended Mr Johnson’s decision making during the pandemic, and apologised to bereaved families.
He said that Mr Johnson held a “principled attachment” to individual liberty which made it difficult for him to contemplate lockdown.
WhatsApp messages shown to the inquiry also showed Mr Gove had asked who should be “first in line” after Dominic Cummings said officials “should be shot” over failings within the Cabinet Office.
Mr Cummings replied that the details were “not for phones!”
Mr Gove defended lockdown but admitted mistakes had been made, including not giving enough attention to the impact of measles on vulnerable children.
The impact of the pandemic on children was initially excluded from the terms of reference of the inquiry until The Telegraph campaigned for it to be scrutinised.
Mr Gove told the inquiry: “If I may... apologise to the victims who endured such pain, the families who endured so much loss as a result of the mistakes that were made by the Government in response to the pandemic.
“Politicians are human beings. We’re fallible. We make mistakes and we make errors. I am sure that the inquiry will have an opportunity to look in detail at many of the errors I and others made.”