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I’m not a liar, Matt Hancock tells Covid Inquiry

Matt Hancock denied being a liar as he was put under pressure at the Covid Inquiry over his claims that he advised Boris Johnson to put the country into lockdown.

The former health secretary said there was no evidence to support what he described as “false accusations” made by several of his former colleagues that he lied, overpromised and wanted to decide “who should live and who should die”.

Instead, he tried to deflect any blame on to Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser, and others, saying a “culture of fear” at the centre of government got in the way of its pandemic response.

Even as Mr Hancock was speaking, Mr Cummings was using social media to accuse him of “flat out lying” in the witness box.

Several high-profile witnesses have accused Mr Hancock of lying or exaggerating during the pandemic, with some saying he should have been sacked as a result.

Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the inquiry, said that “out of fairness to” Mr Hancock he had to ask him how “to a significant extent, important government advisers and officials have concluded that the secretary of state for health in the maw of a public health crisis, the maw of the beast, was a liar?”

Mr Hancock replied: “Well, I was not. You will note that there is no evidence from anybody who I worked with in the department or the health system who supported that – those false allegations... And then on a couple of occasions there were general sweeping allegations which [they] had no evidence [for] whatsoever.”

He added: “In one case the witness said ‘I haven’t got this in black and white’ – well, of course not, because it wasn’t true.”

Dominic Cummings was blamed by Matt Hancock for the negative atmosphere in Number 10
Dominic Cummings was blamed by Matt Hancock for the negative atmosphere in Number 10 - Kirsty O'Connor/PA

Mr Hancock was challenged by Mr Keith about a claim that he told Mr Johnson on March 13 2020 that he needed to put the country into lockdown.

Mr Hancock said he had spoken to Mr Johnson on the phone, but Mr Keith pointed out that there was no documentary evidence in the inquiry’s possession or in Mr Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries book that the call took place.

As he was speaking, Mr Cummings posted on X, formerly Twitter: “Hancock flat out lying to inquiry claiming he privately pushed for lockdown on 13th and 14th with PM… when evidence from ALL others & paper trail is that he was still pushing Plan A herd immunity 13th-15th.”

After the inquiry’s break for lunch, Mr Hancock told Mr Keith he had checked and found he had called the then prime minister at 3.24pm on March 13.

Mr Keith said: “Are you saying that you have a record of a phone call that you haven’t disclosed to this inquiry?”

Mr Hancock said there was no record of what was said, just that it happened, and he remembered it.

Later, Mr Hancock mentioned another phone call he had made on Jan 22 2020, which he said he had not been able to find a record of.

“Maybe you’ll find that call in that little notebook that you’ve just produced,” Mr Keith said pointedly.

“It’s not a notebook, it’s a phone record,” retorted Mr Hancock.

Mr Hancock also denied a claim made by Lord Stevens, the then chief executive of NHS England, that he told officials he “should ultimately decide who should live or die” if the NHS was overwhelmed.

The MP said he recommended that clinicians, rather than ministers, should make that decision.

Mr Hancock was reminded of the evidence of Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary, who accused him of “nuclear levels” of overconfidence.

He said he could understand why some people might have thought that, but explained he was “trying to wake up Whitehall to this threat” and felt it was his responsibility to try to drive the pandemic response forward more quickly.

Cummings’s ‘toxic culture’

While the Department of Health and Social Care was getting on with hard work, said Mr Hancock, there was “a toxic culture that we had to work with, which seemed to want to find people to blame rather than spend all of their effort solving the problems”.

Later in his evidence he made it clear he blamed Mr Cummings directly for the negative atmosphere in No 10.

He said: “It was unpleasant for a whole load of my staff who were subjected to his sort of abuse from the chief adviser [Mr Cummings]... there was a culture of fear inculcated by this particular individual.”

Mr Hancock accused Mr Cummings of a “power grab” because “the chief adviser said decisions don’t need to go to the prime minister. Now that is inappropriate in a democracy”.

He added: “Systems need to be in place so that if there is a malign actor in No 10... the system needs to be able to work despite that.”

Mr Hancock portrayed himself as a lone voice in Cabinet trying to persuade Mr Johnson and others to take the threat more seriously in early 2020, only to be told “the world has gone mad”.

Mr Keith read Mr Hancock a series of extracts from the diaries of Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser, in which Sir Patrick described “massive operational mess” within Mr Hancock’s department; that the department had “done nothing” and that there was a “clear lack of grip” from him.

Mr Hancock replied: “The culture of the Cabinet Office is to be sceptical of the operation of departments, partly to hold them to account, and I think that’s the toxic culture that you see at the centre of government,” which he said was “unhelpful”.

He said he tried to lead a positive culture within his department, and with the NHS and other health organisations, but there was “an unhealthy toxic culture at the centre where anything that went wrong was seen as almost intentional failure”.

Matt Hancock with Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer
Matt Hancock with Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer - Eddie Mulholland

‘Should’ve locked down earlier’

Mr Hancock said that locking down three weeks earlier would have saved 90 per cent of lives lost in the first Covid wave and that by the end of Feb 2020 he had realised major action was needed to suppress the virus.

He told the inquiry that, with hindsight, the country should have locked down on March 2, three weeks before Mr Johnson announced restrictions, which legally came into force for the first time on March 26.

The former minister said: “If at that moment, we’d realised that it was definitely coming and the reasonable worst case scenario was as awful as it was, that is the moment that we should, with hindsight, have acted... fewer than a tenth of the number of people would have died in the first wave.”

Mr Hancock defended the Government, saying at the time there was “enormous uncertainty” about the disease and only 12 cases had been identified in the country.

Health security failings

Mr Hancock pointed out there was a “spectacular imbalance” between defence spending and health security spending.

He told the inquiry that while Britain spends £50 billion a year on military defence, only one per cent of that amount – £500 million – is allocated to health security.

“Yet health security failings have killed more civilians than any other external threat since the Second World War,” he said, “and maybe even further back than that.”

Mr Hancock questioned what the response would have been from the Government if he had gone to the Cabinet Secretary “setting out a fifty-fifty chance of a terrorist threat that might kill half a million people”.

He suggested the prime minister would have called for a Cobra emergency meeting immediately, but instead, he said, Mr Cummings decided to take charge from his office.

Sir Patrick ‘wanted herd immunity’

Documents shown to the inquiry suggested that Sir Patrick wanted to build up herd immunity in the population by not completely suppressing the spread of Covid-19.

The former chief scientific advisor has repeatedly insisted this was never his wish, and that comments about herd immunity made during a BBC interview around the same period were misunderstood.

However. minutes of a Cobra meeting on March 12 2020 showed that in the run-up to lockdown Sir Patrick believed the Covid wave should not be suppressed but flattened to avoid a second peak later in the year.

He told a Cobra meeting that allowing some spread, while protecting the vulnerable, could allow herd immunity to be in place by Sept 2020.

Hancock didn’t read Sage minutes

‌Mr Hancock admitted he did not read the minutes of Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) meetings at the start of the pandemic and instead relied on a summary from Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer.

He said: “I asked for them at some point in February, to be regularly put in my box... with hindsight I think I should have gone and listened directly to the debate in Sage.”

Pressed by Mr Keith on whether the minutes of Sage were being put before him as the Secretary of State responsible for public health, Mr Hancock added: “Not in the first instance… there was a much wider body of publicly debated scientific advice, so Sage was an important body, but I think it would be wrong to fetishise its existence and role.”

‘Creative counting’ with tests target

The inquiry was shown a message from former cabinet secretary Lord Sedwill sent to Mr Hancock on May 1 2020 about him exceeding his publicly-stated target of 100,000 Covid tests per day to be carried out by that date.

Mr Hancock was accused at the time of inflating the figures by counting tests that had not yet been taken by people. The message from Lord Sedwill said: “Well done this evening. Creative counting and 122k!” Mr Hancock replied with three kiss emojis.

Asked by Mr Keith if he accepted or rejected the suggestion of “creative counting” to reach the target, he said: “I reject it, and in every different way you could possibly count these measures, we hit that target.”

Other WhatsApp messages shown to the inquiry revealed Mr Hancock believed that then chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme to support hospitality was “causing problems in our intervention areas” – but he had “kept it out of the news”.

In an exchange with Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, in Aug 2020, Mr Hancock said they should “not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension”.

Despite criticising the scheme, Mr Hancock admitted he had used it when asked by Mr Case.

He told him: “Yes it was a joy using it and being thanked by the other diners.”

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