Covid Inquiry: Hancock Ties Himself In Knots Over What He Knew About Asymptomatic Transmission

Matt Hancock
Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock tied himself up in knots over his contradictory claims about whether or not he knew Covid could be transmitted asymptomatically when he was quizzed at the inquiry into the outbreak.

In his 2022 memoir – the Pandemic Diaries – the former health secretary alleged that he had been told Covid could not be passed on by someone without symptoms.

But the MP – who currently sits as an independent – said in his evidence submitted to the inquiry that there were concerns the virus could be transmitted by people without symptoms.

In his witness statement, he also said it was his “single biggest regret” that he didn’t push back over assumptions Covid could not be transmitted asymptomatically.

As the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC pointed out, these two positions "cannot live together" because they contradict one another.

He continued: “Either you were told there is no asymptomatic transmission, or you were told of concerns of asymptomatic transmission, and those concerns crystallised over time. Which is it?”

Hancock maintained that it was not “one or the other”, and claimed: “In late January [2020] I became aware of concerns that there may have been asymptomatic transmission from China, from Germany.

“I challenged the system on whether there was or not. What came back was yes, there was anecdotal evidence that there may have been asymptomatic transmission, but that we should not base policy on that assumption.”

He said that the official policy had to be the reasonable assumption that Covid transmits like SARS – so no asymptomatic transmission.

Hancock claimed he couldn’t get the now-dissolved Public Health England to change this because it was a clinical decision.

He continued: “The frustration I had was, I should have said – that might have been your scientific evidence and advice to me, however we should base policy on the fact there is asymptomatic transmission.”

He said he should have used his “hunch to overrule the science” – and went on to say that he do that “on a couple of occasions”.

As Keith pointed out other examples where there was asymptomatic transmission – like those on cruise ships.

Hancock replied, angrily: “So why couldn’t I get PHE to change the scientific advice to base the assumption of transmission on asymptomatic transmission as opposed to symptomatic transmission? I hope you can understand my frustration.”

He said he had gone over the issue repeatedly in his mind.

Keith cut in and said: “Mr Hancock, perfectly understandable you would wish to answer at length on this important issue. But, could I invite to please stick to the question?”

He then read out a WhatsApp conversation between chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty and former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance from July 24, 2020.

In the messages, Vallance asked his colleague: “Why are PM and Matt Hancock saying we didn’t know about asymptomatic transmission.”

Whitty replied saying that they did, indeed, know about it. He added: “We will have to put up with quite a lot of this.”

Questioned over this exchange in the Covid Inquiry, Hancock just said he and then-PM Boris Johnson were “clearly stating” the global scientific position that there was no asymptomatic transmission.

Hancock has been pulled apart on multiple occasions throughout the Covid inquiry.

Vallance claimed Hancock had said things that were “not true” during the pandemic, and he had a “habit” of giving false information.

Helen MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary, told the inquiry he had displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence.

Hancock also believed he should decide who got to survive if the NHS became overwhelmed at the height of Covid, according to former chief executive of NHS England Simon Stevens.