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Covid inquiry live: Matt Hancock mocked by barrister Hugo Keith over ‘phone records’ as he denies liar claims

Matt Hancock has been mocked by Covid inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC for having a “little notebook” to refer to, after the ex-health secretary said he had used a break to uncover new evidence of a phone call between himself and Boris Johnson.

The MP claimed his phone call with Mr Johnson on 28 February 2020 was the moment government “really started to come into action”, and claimed that had his own “doctrine” been followed, the first lockdown would have come three weeks earlier – saving 90 per cent of those who died in the first wave.

But Dominic Cummings claimed Matt Hancock was “flat out lying” to the Covid inquiry by claiming he pressed the prime minister for a lockdown on 13 March, and claimed to have “physically stopped” Mr Hancock coming to a meeting the following day because he “was bull****ting everybody about herd immunity”.

In an escalating war of words, Mr Hancock claimed to the inqury that Mr Cummings was a “malign influence” who created a toxic “culture of fear”.

Key Points

  • Matt Hancock claims first lockdown should have happened three weeks earlier

  • Dominic Cummings accuses Hancock of ‘flat out lying’ over lockdown claims

  • Ex-health secretary blames Cummings for ‘toxic culture’ in government

  • Hancock denies that he lied to colleagues about having a plan for pandemic

  • What have other officials told the inquiry about Hancock?

  • Inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC mocks Hancock over ‘little notebook’

WhatsApps reveal Hancock pushed for tougher Covid measures in autumn 2020

11:08 , Andy Gregory

WhatsApp messages between Matt Hancock and top civil servant Simon Case show Matt Hancock warned that tougher measures were needed in October 2020 to avoid a full national lockdown.

The ex-health secretary wrote on 9 October: “We can’t just give up in fighting the virus. We have to stop it regionally now or we will be in full national lockdown in a fortnight.”

Mr Case replied that Boris Johnson was “not willing to go further in terms of national mandation”, adding: “Happy to go further if local leaders want to go further. But PM feels your cabinet colleagues and party won’t support more as national imposition.

But Mr Hancock argued: “It’s not national imposition it’s local. What’s changed overnight? When can I make the case for action - this won’t work and we will massively regret it.”

 (Covid inquiry)
(Covid inquiry)

Government knew about ‘significant and specific’ care homes risk, says Hancock

11:00 , Andy Gregory

The government knew Covid posed was “a significant and specific risk” to those living in care homes more than a month before the decision to discharge hospital patients back into homes, Matt Hancock has said.

Mr Hancock was questioned about the minutes of a meeting on 11 February 2020 about adult social care and Covid, which show it was noted that infections could enter care homes via infected residents, staff and visitors.

Asked what was done to minimise these through routes of infection prior to the hospital discharge policy announced on 19 March, Mr Hancock said: “For context, there were under five cases in the UK at that point, so this is very early on in thinking about how we are going to handle the pandemic.

“But it was clear from this point that the virus had its biggest impact on those who are older and had underlying vulnerabilities. So we knew that there was a problem, and we knew that there was a significant and specific risk for those who lived in care homes.”

Hancock ‘acutely aware’ of Covid’s impact on ethnic minority NHS staff

10:50 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has said he was “acutely aware” of the disproportionate impact of Covid upon ethnic minority healthcare workers.

Mr Hancock said: “I was particularly struck by the death of the first four NHS doctors, three of whom are from an ethnic minority background. I was acutely aware of the disproportionate impact of those from ethnic minority backgrounds, especially among the wider NHS workforce as well, not just the doctors and nurses.

He added: “This is something I was worried about from early in the pandemic. I’d in fact worked on this before the pandemic, including raising the issues of discrimination within the NHS and there was work underway on a particularly difficult issue that came up in NHS BT [Blood and Transplant].

“So there was a wide range of work on this, I was aware on it from the start, and I was very glad when Kemi [Badenoch] was tasked by the prime minister to lead and really get to the bottom of this.”

Hancock questioned over affair with Gina Coladangelo

10:37 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has been questioned about his affair with Gina Coladangelo at the Covid inquiry.

Put to him that his affair was damaging to public confidence, Mr Hancock said: “What I’d say is that the lesson for the future is very clear, and it is important that those who make the rules abide by them, and I resigned in order to take accountability for my failure to do that.”

He agreed that this decision reflected that he understood the “deleterious consequences of rule-breaking” on public confidence.

 (PA)
(PA)

Hancock recalls ‘harrowing’ fortnight during third lockdown

10:33 , Andy Gregory

The fortnight after the third lockdown was announced was “harrowing” as ministers did not know whether the NHS would be overwhelmed by the Alpha variant, Matt Hancock has said.

“By that stage because the case rates were so high we again had to pull every lever which unfortuantely included having to close schools,” said the ex-health secretary.

He added: “I remember the two weeks after that as harrowing, because the case numbers kept going up as they had in March, after we pulled every lever, and there was nothing more we could do.

“And because this was a new strain, we didn’t know whether everything would be enough to get it under control. And thankfully we did get it under control just before the NHS was overwhelmed once again.”

Hancock feared Sunak putting ‘enormous pressure’ on Johnson against lockdown measures

10:27 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said that Rishi Sunak would have put “enormous pressure” not to go far enough in tackling Covid during a meeting on 30 October 2020.

“I am very worried abotu a rearguard action that has screwed us over too often”, the ex-health secretary wrote in texts sent to chief civil servant Simon Case during the meeting, which Mr Hancock claims he was blocked from attending.

“I was referring to the prime minister making a decision in principle to take action that was necessary to save lives and then others arguing strongly against it afterwards. And I don’t actually know who the others were, because I wouldn’t have been party to those conversations.”

His texts stated: “Rishi is in the room – contrary to the stupid rules – so the PM will be under enormous pressure to not do enough once again.”

 (Covid inquiry)
(Covid inquiry)

Hancock denounces ‘weak’ Covid proposals in autumn 2020

10:18 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said there were various “weak” proposals to deal with rising Covid infections in the autumn of 2020.

“My argument was that we needed to act now both because there’s no trade off between health and economics. But also if we don’t lock down there will be more deaths and we will have to have a tougher lcokdonw in the future,” he told the inquiry.

“So on reflection, and with hindsight, I think that if we’d taken action sooner in September of 2020 then we might for instance have avoided the need to close schools, which in the end we had to because cases were so high in January.”

He added: “By this stage, those arguing against lockdown in parliament were formulating a group, they were coordinated, they were campaigning, and this became more of a problem later on.”

Boris Johnson to appear before inquiry next week

09:48 , Matt Mathers

Boris Johnson will appear before the Covid 19 inquiry next Wednesday and Thursday, it has been confirmed.

The former prime minister will answer questions about the government’s decision-making during the pandemic.

Mr Johnson will be the only figure at the inquiry next week, and is scheduled to sit from 10.00am to 4.30pm on both days in a marathon evidence session.

Archie Mitchell has the full report:

Boris Johnson to be grilled at Covid inquiry next week

NHS urges people to book ‘lifesaving’ Covid and flu vaccines before Christmas

09:32 , Matt Mathers

The NHS is urging anyone still eligible for Covid and flu vaccines to book an appointment and get potentially lifesaving protection ahead of Christmas.

Booking systems will close from December 15, making December 14 the last day to make a booking, with hundreds of thousands of appointments still available each week across England.

Full report:

NHS urges people to book ‘lifesaving’ Covid and flu vaccines before Christmas

Hancock arrives for day two of evidence

09:18 , Matt Mathers

Matt Hancock has arrived at the Covid inquiry for his second day of giving evidence.

The former health secretary was pictured arriving at Dorland House at around 8:30am.

He was wearing a dark navy suit, pink tie and white shirt.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

ICYMI: Covid inquiry half-time report: the winners and losers so far

08:47 , Matt Mathers

A back-pedalling Matt Hancock came unstuck (again), the ‘two gentlemen of corona’, Vallance and Whitty, were candid, clear and balanced – but overall the hearings will play badly for the Conservative Party, says Sean O’Grady, as he looks ahead to next week’s appearance by Boris Johnson.

Read Sean’s full piece here:

Covid inquiry: the winners and losers so far

Raab suggested Johnson should be vaccinated live on air

08:13 , Matt Mathers

Dominic Raab suggested to Boris Johnson that the prime minister should be vaccinated live on TV to “refute the anti-AstraZeneca misinformation being spread by the Russian government”.

The former deputy prime minister, in a witness statement to the inquiry, said he got the idea from the Estonian prime minister, who was immunised live on air before taking part in a "cross-country ski marathon".

Mr Raab, who resigned as justice secretary in May over bullying allegations he denied, also said he did not “witness” claims that Mr Johnson himself suggested that he should be injected with the infection live on air.

"In respect of the alleged injection comment, I can only say that, when I returned from Estonia in March 2021, I told the prime minister that the Estonian president had been vaccinated live on television and then had done a cross-country ski marathon, in order to refute the anti-AstraZeneca misinformation being spread by the Russian government,” he said.

"I may have suggested that the prime minister consider doing the same."

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

What time is Matt Hancock due to give evidence?

07:52 , Matt Mathers

Matt Hancock is due to give evidence from 10am this morning.

Today’s session forms part of module 2 of the inquiry - decision-making and political governance during the pandemic.

Sajid Javid, who also served as a health secretary, gave evidence earlier in the week.

Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, is set to be grilled at the inquiry next week.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson has urged his successor Rishi Sunak to take action to bring down net migration (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)
Former prime minister Boris Johnson has urged his successor Rishi Sunak to take action to bring down net migration (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)

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

07:32 , Matt Mathers

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.

Full report:

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

07:31 , Matt Mathers

Good morning and welcome to The Independent’s coverage of the Covid inquiry.

Matt Hancock is due to testify again today after admitting on Thursday that the government locked down too early.

Stay tuned for all the latest updates.

ICYMI: Covid inquiry counsel clashes with Hancock

06:00 , Katy Clifton

ICYMI: Matt Hancock not told about Eat Out to Help Out

04:00 , Katy Clifton

Matt Hancock was not told about Eat Out to Help Out until the day the scheme was announced, by which time it was a “done deal”, he told the inquiry yesterday.

He joins leading government scientists in not being told in advance about Rishi Sunak’s scheme – when he was chancellor – to revive the hospitality industry in the summer of 2020.

Mr Hancock, who was health secretary at the time, said he learned about the scheme in the Cabinet meeting on the morning it was announced.

The plan formed part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update on July 8 2020, and provided 50% off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks.

Mr Hancock told the inquiry: “I didn’t know about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme until the Cabinet meeting on the morning of its announcement.”

Recap: What was in Matt Hancock’s testimony on Thursday?

02:00 , Andy Gregory

Our political correspondent Archie Mitchell has this quick round-up of today’s events:

  • Matt Hancock accused Dominic Cummings of fostering a “culture of fear” which hamstrung the government’s response to the pandemic

  • The former health secretary denied having lied his way through the pandemic, saying there was “no evidence” to back up claims he was dishonest – instead pointing the finger at Mr Cummings for creating a “toxic” culture

  • He confirmed claims that Mr Cummings exerted “too great an influence” on Mr Johnson, even accusing the adviser of making a “power grab”

  • He accused Mr Cummings of lying to the official probe into the pandemic

  • Mr Hancock denied having sought to play God during the pandemic, after the former chief of the NHS said he wanted to “decide who lived and who died”

  • He said Britain would have saved “many, many lives” by locking down three weeks earlier

  • And Mr Hancock admitted he was not reading minutes of Sage meetings until February

Hancock: 'I didn’t think there was a trade-off between health and economy

00:30 , Andy Gregory

Asked whether Boris Johnson had a “consistent approach” during debates over “opening up” after the first lockdown, Matt Hancock said yesterday: “I think it’s fair to say that the prime minister felt strongly the arguments for the protection of health and the arguments for liberty and the protection of the economy.

“My particular beef was that I didn’t think there was a trade off at all. And it wasn’t an either or, you couldn’t choose between either.

“And my intense frustration was that economists at the Treasury, and elsewhere, couldn’t see that that although you could protect the economy by not locking down this week or next week, the second round consequence of that would be a firmer, more economically damaging lockdown in the future.

“And I couldn’t get them to see it, it was deeply frustrating that it was against the economic interest as well as against the health interest to avoid the action that was necessary.”

He added: “Late August was frustrating because in July, the prime minister had been extremely concerned that there was a second wave, and it’s reflected in the various communications and then came back from holiday and was much more concerned with not locking down and I found that a problem.”

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

Thursday 30 November 2023 22:50 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock launched an extraordinary fightback against claims by Dominic Cummings that 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 Downing Street who had fostered a “culture of fear” across government.

And he denied being a liar, instead pointing the finger at Mr Cummings for creating a “toxic culture” in which ministers and officials sought to blame each other for Covid-era mistakes.

Mr Hancock said Mr Cummings, Boris Johnson’s top aide during the pandemic, had “abused” staff across Whitehall. And, extraordinarily, he went on to accuse Mr Cummings of himself lying to the official Covid-19 Inquiry.

Our political correspondent Archie Mitchell has the full report here:

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

Hancock says he did not support ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown

Thursday 30 November 2023 21:53 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock claims he did not support the idea of a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown as recommended by scientific advisers in the autumn of 2020.

The former health secretary said: “I was in favour of tougher measures that would get R below one, especially in the areas where cases were highest.

“I was I was not convinced by the circuit breaker proposal on two grounds: the first is it’s effectively just a short lockdown and if you put it in for two weeks, I could see why in theory, if for two weeks no human would come into contact with any other human then the case numbers would drop dramatically.

“But in the real world that isn’t how life works. For instance, in hospitals and care homes, people have to interact.

“And secondly, the political impact of repeat the circuit breakers would have been to lose the confidence of those who we needed to have on board to make it happen.

“And I thought we would I thought that therefore a circuit breaker was not the best approach because basically rates would just shoot up afterwards. That is what happened when they tried one in Wales.”

He added: “My position was to argue first and foremost for tougher local lockdowns and the tier system with a stronger top tier.

“And I first put that forward at the end of August to my own team and it was very frustrating that it took me a month to get that policy in place, even more frustrating was that the top tier was not enough to get R below one and therefore not effective for the task. That was deeply frustrating.

“The second thing was where national measures like the rule of six were proposed. I was an enthusiastic supporter.”

Hancock claims he kept concerns about Eat Out to Help Out scheme ‘out of the news'

Thursday 30 November 2023 20:10 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock kept concerns about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme “out of the news” as he believes government is a “team effort”, he told the Covid inquiry.

The probe was shown a WhatsApp exchange from August 2020 between the former health secretary and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.

Mr Hancock wrote: “Just want to let you know directly that we have had lots of feedback that Eat Out to Help Out is causing problems in our intervention areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious. So please please lets not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”

Mr Case replied: “Have you told Rishi? I don’t think he can afford to extend it!” Mr Hancock wrote: “Yes we’ve told Treasury - we’ve been protecting them in the comms and thankfully it hasn’t bubbled up.”

When asked about the exchange by inquiry counsel Hugo Keith, Mr Hancock said he was “being encouraged by various journalists” who presumed he was against the scheme.

“But I believe that government is a team effort. And so I didn’t want that to become a row in public,” he added. “You can see, during the whole pandemic, the corrosive effects of leaks.”

Hancock: Officials were ‘actively working against’ my plans to ramp up testing

Thursday 30 November 2023 18:32 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said that the people at the “centre” were “actively working against” his plans to ramp up testing in the early days of the pandemic.

Asked about his plans to ramp up testing from 10,000 a day at the end of March 2020, to 100,000 a day at the end of April, he said: “I now know that there were people actively working against me on it in the centre, which is appalling.”

He added: “What Simon Case described to me as ‘the long screwdriver’, which is relatively junior people in No 10 trying to go into the testing programme at a level too far down, too low, and try and issue diktats was deeply unhelpful over this period. And following proper lines of accountability would have been much more effective.

“But that’s that wasn’t quite what I meant, what I meant was the criticism that instead of going for 100,000 tests, there were other things tests could have been used for is is wrong, and wrong in logic, because we needed the tests. Of course we also needed to work out what we were going to use the tests for and that was essentially a clinical decision.

“But what I needed to do from when I took over the responsibility for testing in the middle of on March 17 was drive the system, galvanise the system as somebody put it quite rightly, and announcing a target - even though I didn’t know that we could hit it, which is unusual in government ... normally people only do things they’re pretty sure they can achieve. That was absolutely critical to driving the expansion of testing, which was so necessary in the rest of the response.

“It is of course it’s frustrating to me that, in so doing and in in taking that approach, obviously some people were upset by it ... it baffles me why people were against the expansion of testing in that way.”

Hancock says he wasn’t told about Eat Out to Help Out scheme

Thursday 30 November 2023 17:54 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has said he was not told in advance about Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme – echoing the host of top government scientists and medics who also told the inquiry last week of being blindsided by it.

Asked whether he knew in advance about it, the ex-health secretary said: “No. Not ahead of its announcement on the 8th of July. In fact cases were still falling at that point ... I didn’t know about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme until the Cabinet meeting on the morning of its announcement.

“And it was one of a package of loosenings. We were doing a number of things to bring back a bit of freedom over the summer.”

Mr Hancock said he didn’t know when asked what view he would have offered on the scheme as health secretary, to which Hugo Keith said: “Well, Mr Hancock. You’ve told the inquiry that there is in this debate between caution and allowing release – and it’s a difficult debate – a public health view, which you as the secretary of state are plainly on the side of caution, because that’s your job.”

The MP replied: “What mattered in the opening then was that there wasn’t overall too much. And in the end there was overall too much. Which individual items of opening you did or didn’t do is second order compared to the overall amount of openings.”

Hancock: No 10 told me not to say restrictions would be needed until vaccine arrived

Thursday 30 November 2023 17:25 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has said he was told by No 10 in summer 2020 not to say that Covid restrictions would be needed until the arrival of a vaccine – by which point he claims he was “confident” that a vaccine would work.

Asked to what extent his concerns about easing lockdown measures too soon in summer 2020 were heard and reflected in the government’s actions, he said: “They were heard, and they were reflected I guess in as much as there might have been more opening had I not made these arguments.

“My entire strategy at this point was to try to keep R below 1. I was completely alongside Chris Whitty at this point on this strategy, which was: summer is the best time to release, if R goes a bit above 1 over the summer, not the end of the world so long as cases are very low, but then we’ll have to take action in the early autumn to get it down again’.

“But the criticial thing is to keep it under control. And in this period I articulated what I regarded as the government’s strategy, which was: ‘we suppress the virus until a vaccine can make us safe’.”

He claimed that, “after articulating that strategy a few times”, he “then got asked by No 10 not to say it because we didn’t know we’d get a vaccine. But I was confident by this point that we would get one – and anyway I couldn’t see any other way through this without far too many deaths.”

Hancock ‘concerned’ UK’s testing system would struggle to be revived if needed

Thursday 30 November 2023 17:06 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has said that he was “concerned” that testing capabilities set up during the pandemic would struggle to be stood up again if needed.

Calling for the UK to spend more on health security, the ex-health secretary said: “That is what I’m concerned about.”

“For instance, recently one of the major labs was put on the market. I think it will be that better if it were mothballed and ready to go at the flick of a switch.”

Hancock criticises ‘spectacular imbalance’ in UK defence and health security spending

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:52 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said that there is “spectacular imbalance” in spending on health security and physical defence in the UK.

“We spend £50bn a year on physical defence and we spend less than half a billion pounds a year on UKHSA,” he said.

“We spend less than 1 per cent of our total budget for defence on health security, yet health security failings have killed more civilians than any other external threat since the Second World War and maybe even further back than that.

“And I think this is a spectacular imbalance in the amount of resources that we put into defence of this country against, say a terror threat, compared to a health threat.

“I’ve got one particular axe to grind ... the head of UKHSA should be on the National Security Council all of the time, not just brought in when there’s a health issue on the agenda because health security threats have been demonstrated to be the biggest threat to the civilian population of this country.”

Cummings accuses Hancock of ‘lie after lie'

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:49 , Andy Gregory

Dominic Cummings has accused Matt Hancock of telling “lie after lie after lie” at the inquiry, as he rejected the ex-health secretary’s claim that a plan not to suppress the virus was used for just “a few days”.

Boris Johnson’s former political aide alleges that this was the plan for months until mid-March.

Hancock told that ‘in no universe’ did he ‘lock down’ care homes prior to nationwide shutdown

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:35 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has been shown WhatsApp messages from his media adviser Jamie Nkoju-Goodwin warning him that “we might have some issues with you telling the PM we ‘locked down’ care homes before the rest of the country”.

That assertion was based on a paragraph in guidance issued to care homes on 13 March, advising them to review their visiting policies ask no one to visit who is feeling unwell, to “emphasise good hygiene for visitors” and to keep the use of onsite contractors “to a minimum”.

That review should “also consider the wellbeing of residents, and the positive impact of seeing friends and family”, the guidance said.

Asked by the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC to explain how he would argue that he did not say anything misleading to Boris Johnson, Mr Hancock said: “It depends on whether you define the actions that were taken in the publication on the 13th of March, that guidance, as locked down or not.”

Mr Hancock added: “The critique being put at the time was that we took action to protect people in care homes later than locking down the rest of the country. And that was not true because we took action on the 13th of March.

“Whether that action was strong enough or not to call it ‘lockdown’ – for instance, it included visitor restrictions, I think – that’s the point of debate.”

Pointing to the wording of the guidance, Mr Keith said: “In no universe, Mr Hancock, could those measures possibly be described as locking down the care homes.”

Mr Hancock conceded: “I think that’s what Jamie was trying to tell me.”

‘Quite clear’ that we did not have a protective ring around care homes, Hancock says

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:13 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock has admitted that the government “quite clearly” did not have a protective ring around care homes in the early days of the pandemic.

The former health secretary was presented with evidence from Jonathan Van Tam that “a ring is a circle without a break in it”.

Hugo Keith KC said: “However you describe protective processes you put in place around the care sector, they did not form an unbroken circle, did they?”

Mr Hancock said it was “quite clear” that Professor Van Tam was right.

‘We are negligently killing the most vulnerable… I am extremely worried,’ Cummings

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:12 , Archie Mitchell

Dominic Cummings told a group including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser that the government was “killing the most vulnerable” and he was “extremely worried”.

Mr Hancock was asked about the May 2020 message and whether it reflected the government’s lack of tests for those being admitted into care homes and staff working in social care.

Hancock says he was ‘absolutely determined’ NHS would not be overwhelmed

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:10 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has said he was “absolutely determined” that the NHS would not be overwhelmed as he said that “nobody fully knew what that looked like”.

Asked when the government believed the NHS would be overwhelmed by exponential Covid infections without the first lockdown, Mr Hancock said: “The true answer to that question is: nobody fully knew what that would look like. But we knew that it would be catastrophic.

“When making the decision [to lock down] on the 23rd, the advice was nine days in a reasonable worst-case scenario, 15 days in the central scenario. But at that point my worry was we were going up the reasonable worst-case scenario, notwithstanding the decisions we’d taken on the 16th and 20th.

“What that would look like, what that would mean, would be people going without treatment. And I was absolutely determined that that would not happen.”

He added: “Of course the NHS would have survived. It would have done its level best ... but it would not have been able to provide care to everybody. And therefore the number of people who died would have gone up even more than it would have done just because of the virus.”

‘We did not have enough tests’ to test people discharged into care homes

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:03 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock has said the government did not have enough tests to check whether people had Covid before discharging them from hospitals into care homes.

“We did not have enough tests,” the former health secretary said when asked whether people were still being discharged without tests after March 18, 2020.

He was then shown a document from April showing that the policy at the time was that negative tests “are not required” before transfers or admissions into care homes.

Lockdown ‘wasn’t at all politically divisive’, says Matt Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 16:03 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said that while people have criticised the forecasting of how many people would die, in the period before the first lockdown the figures looked like they were becoming true.

Mr Hancock said lockdown had overwhelming support and “wasn’t actually politically divisive”, adding that “some people forget what actually happened, but it wasn’t divisive at all”.

He added: “There was enormous conceptual support across very large swathes of the population and almost all political leaders. And in fact, the fact that it happened in all four nations was led by five political parties, not even four political parties, at the same time demonstrates that.”

Britain’s top civil servant mocked Matt Hancock for ‘creative counting’, inquiry hears

Thursday 30 November 2023 15:59 , Archie Mitchell

The Covid inquiry has been shown a message from cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill to Matt Hancock in which he accused the health secretary of “creative counting”.

The former top civil servant was referring to Mr Hancock reaching a target by hitting 122,000 daily Covid tests.

Mr Hancock rejected the idea he was guilty of “creative counting”.

Boris would have chaired Cobra if Covid was a terror threat, not a virus

Thursday 30 November 2023 15:51 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock said the government would have taken the threat of a terror attack killing hundreds of thousands more seriously than a potential pandemic.

Referring to Boris Johnson’s failure to chair Cobra meetings early in the pandemic, Mr Hancock said he would have if the threat was a terror plot.

Mr Hancock said: “If I had gone in mid-January to the cabinet secretary setting out a 50/50 chance of a terrorist threat that might kill half a million people, I think the prime minister would have chaired the Cobra meeting, not me, don't you?”

‘Waiting' for Covid to arrive was ‘wrong’, says Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 15:45 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said that the idea of “waiting and allowing it to come towards you” was “wrong”.

The former health secretary said: “If you think you’ve only got a limited period lockdown that you can put in place, the timing of that lockdown matters. And watching the Italian curve was the best way of thinking ‘what would happen here’? So the Italy data were important in that sense.

“And then you had to judge, compared to where we were on Italy, were to bring in the lockdown – and indeed, we brought in the lockdown earlier in the epidemiological curve than Italy and others did.

“My point is not about whether or not it’s right to base yourself off Italy. My point is the whole doctrine of waiting, sort of allowing it to come towards you and hold hold. And now we go, that was wrong.

“The moment you need a lockdown, you need to lockdown.”

Hancock claims he was ‘sceptical’ about stopping contact tracing in March 2020

Thursday 30 November 2023 15:32 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said he had been “sceptical” about stopping contact tracing and community testing in March 2020.

He told the inquiry: “On the 12th of March, it had been announced that we were going to stop community testing and stop contact tracing. I don’t want to overplay it because I didn’t actively stop it but I was sceptical of whether we should stop these things.

“I’d been trying to drive up testing, trying to get PHE to engage the private sector in testing. And I basically, at this point, had the confidence to say what I’d previously thought, urged on by the WHO, which was ‘what on earth are we doing stopping these things?”’

He said he had “issued the instruction internally that we should not accept that these have to stop”, but when pressed by inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith, said he did not know the detail of what his instructions had been.

Mr Hancock added: “What I remember is, firstly, the approaches were different on testing and on contact tracing. On testing, the problem at this point was that we didn’t have enough tests for community testing.”

Mr Hancock said that at a meeting on 17 March, which he said had been arranged to try and “electrify the growth of testing”, he had taken responsibility for testing from PHE “back into the department and drove it very hard from there”.

Watch: Matt Hancock mocked by lawyer Hugo Keith over ‘little notebook'

Thursday 30 November 2023 15:22 , Andy Gregory

Government 'held fire' on lockdown over fears public would get tired of measures, Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 15:07 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock said the government had “held fire” in the early part of March due to “clear, scientific advice” around how long the public might put up with pandemic counter measures

He said from the weekend of 1 March the discussion changed from whether to act to when to act.

He told the inquiry: “There was then, from that period, that weekend, the discussion was then when to go, not whether to go. So it switched from whether to go to when to go, and we held fire because we didn’t know how long the public would put up with measures for and that was the clear, scientific advice. And, on this, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty were completely united.

Mr Hancock said a phone call with his Italian counterpart had “a very significant impact on” him, prompting him to throw his weight behind a lockdown.

He added: “We thought the Italians had acted early, but he was saying he wished he’d act early acted earlier still. And this argument that you should delay it and time it right, he had no truck with.”

Hugo Keith: ‘I don’t give evidence, I have never given evidence'

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:56 , Archie Mitchell

Hugo Keith KC is growing increasingly testy with Matt Hancock. The Covid inquiry’s lead counsel just slapped down the former health secretary for saying “you will know” about actions he took during the pandemic.

“I don't give evidence. I've never given evidence in these proceedings,” Mr Keith said.

He added: “You cannot say ‘the inquiry will know that’, the inquiry does not know that you took any of those steps or that both of these [issues] were in hand.”

Matt Hancock mocked over ‘little notebook’

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:53 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock has been mocked by Covid inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC for having a “little notebook” to refer to.

The former health secretary used one of the breaks to uncover new evidence of a phone call between himself and the prime minister.

“You know perfectly well that we have scoured every possible source for documents and materials relevant to issues in this inquiry,” Mr Keith said. “Are you saying that you have a record of a phone call which you have not disclosed at this inquiry?”

Mr Hancock said no, but that he had a record of the phone call taking place.

Minutes later, as he discussed another phone call, Mr Keith joked that Mr Hancock may be able to find the details “in that little notebook you’ve just produced”.

A snappy Mr Hancock replied: “It’s not a notebook. It was a phone record.”

Hancock claims government would have saved ‘many, many lives’ by following his ‘doctrine’

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:52 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has claimed that, had government listened to him, it would have first locked down three weeks earlier and more than 90 per cent of those who died in the first Covid wave would have survived.

“If we had the doctrine that I proposed, which is ‘as soon as you know you’ve got to lock down you lock down as soon as possible’, then we would have got the lockdown done over that weekend, in on the 2nd of March, three weeks earlier than before,” the ex-health secretary told the inquiry.

“There’s a doubling rate at this point estimated every three to four days. We would have been six doublings ahead of where we were, which means that fewer than a tenth of the number of people would have died in the first wave.

“At the time there was still enormous uncertainty. The number of cases were still very low. In fact there were only 12 cases reported on the 1st of March. So you can understand why – and the costs of what I’m just proposing were known and huge. So I defend the actions that were taken by the government at the time, knowing what we did.

“But in hindsight that’s the moment we should have done it. Three weeks earlier. And it would have saved many, many lives.”

Hancock claims he kickstarted ‘action’ on first lockdown – which could have been three weeks sooner

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:46 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has claimed that his phone call with Boris Johnson after finding out that Covid’s fatality rate was 1 per cent – and therefore in a reasonable worst case scenario could kill 500,000 people in the UK – was the moment government “really started to come into action”.

And the ex-health secretary went so far as to claim that, had government followed his own wishes, the first national lockdown might have happened three weeks earlier.

“I found that out on the evening of the 27th [of February 2020] if I recall that correctly. On the 28th, I was still not being allowed to communicate in the way I’d want on this – not able to go on certain radio shows including the Today programme, which is a very important part of the national debate.

“And I phone up the prime minister and I remember it very well. Because he didn’t take the call and then he called me back and I was in a classroom in a primary school in Suffolk ... and I had to say to the kids ‘I’m sorry the prime minister’s calling me, I’ve got to go’. It was quite a moment.

Mr Hancock claims he told the PM he needed to chair a Cobra meeting and said “we need to be able to communicate properly, including on all of the programmes, instead of having this political boycott”.

In the following days, Mr Hancock said he made public comments that schools and whole cities may have to be shut down, adding: “That all flowed from this phone call on the morning of the 28th February.

“I regard that as the moment that the centre of government, led by the prime minister, really started to come into action.

“And if I may say so with hindsight Italy having locked down initially locally in Lombardy on the 21st of January and then nationally locked down on the 28th of February ... at that moment we realised 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 and if we had the doctrine that I proposed, which is ‘as soon as you know you’ve got to lock down you lock down as soon as possible’, then we would have got the lockdown done over that weekend, in on the 2nd of March, three weeks earlier than before.”

‘Absolutely not’ being enough done on infection control in mid-February, says Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:32 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock said there was “absolutely not” enough being done on infection control by mid-February 2020.

Inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC questioned him on plans for non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) at the time, saying: “As the secretary of state for health, you have to acknowledge, Mr Hancock, that by the 14th of February, there were still no plans for infection control in existence.

“There was a 2011 strategy report. You had, to be fair to you, commissioned a battle plan. But nothing had been committed to paper, had it?”

Mr Hancock responded: “If your point is ‘was enough going on?’, absolutely not. To the degree that there was something going on, there was clearly not enough.”

Hancock accuses inquiry lead of ‘making same mistake twice'

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:31 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has accused the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC of making “the same mistake twice” in saying that communications are not a non-pharmaceutical health measure.

The ex-health secretary argued that in fact communications and legislation are both health interventions, adding: “I am emphatic on that point, because you’ve made that mistake twice.”

The inquiry’s chair Baroness Heather Hallett interjected to say: “I think we’re going round in circles – I think we were here this morning”, before appearing to hide a smile.

I was not reading Sage minutes until February

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:22 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock said he was not reading minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) until February.

The former health secretary said with hindsight he should have “gone directly to listen” to Sage. He said he did not read the minutes of Sage meetings unless they were presented to him, which did not happen until “some point in February”.

Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to Boris Johnson mocked Mr Hancock for the admission, saying it “explains a lot”.

ICYMI: Cummings acted as prime minister ‘in all but name’, Sajid Javid tells Covid inquiry

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:12 , Andy Gregory

In evidence echoed today by Matt Hancock, his successor as health secretary Sajid Javid told the inquiry yesterday that Dominic Cummings acted as prime minister in all but name and was the driving force behind key decisions during the pandemic.

Mr Javid said cabinet ministers were often excluded from decision-making and it was Mr Cummings calling the shots.

Recalling his decision to resign as chancellor in February 2020, he said he agreed with claims made by others that there was a “toxic” and “feral” culture within No 10 and said he had “not experienced that extent of dysfunction in any government before”.

He blamed the dominance of Mr Cummings, who was Mr Johnson’s top adviser, revealing: “I felt that the elected prime minister was not in charge of what was happening in his name and was largely content with Mr Cummings running the government.”

Cummings PM in all but name, says Javid

Boris Johnson to be grilled at Covid inquiry next week

Thursday 30 November 2023 13:53 , Andy Gregory

Boris Johnson will appear before the Covid 19 inquiry next Wednesday and Thursday, it has been confirmed.

The former prime minister will answer questions about the government’s decision-making during the pandemic.

Mr Johnson will be the only figure at the inquiry next week, and is scheduled to sit from 10.00am to 4.30pm on both days in a marathon evidence session.

It will offer the ex-PM a chance to answer criticism of his handling of the pandemic, including the incendiary claim that he was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.

Boris Johnson to be grilled at Covid inquiry next week

Watch: Matt Hancock claims government’s pandemic preparedness was inadequate

Thursday 30 November 2023 13:34 , Andy Gregory

Covid restrictions were not raised in February 2020 exercise to plan for pandemic, says Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 13:16 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has conceded that the question of what health measures could be needed to counter a coronavirus pandemic if it hit the UK “was not asked” during a ministerial planning exercise in mid-February 2020.

Mr Hancock was asked why – despite it being evidently understood in a February planning session called Exercise Nimbus that many people would die – there was not more generally any debate about infection control measures such as home isolation and shutting schools.

The health secretary said the exercise was based on the 2011 pandemic flu strategy “which was based on the wrong doctrine that the government’s job in a pandemic is to manage the consequences of a pandemic, not to stop it happening”.

He added: “This central question of ‘when do you lock down? what are the triggers?’ ... should have been at the centre of Nimbus ... at this point it was still 50/50 whether [the virus] would escape China.”

Hugo Keith replied: “It was a ministerial and advisory tabletop exercise designed to try and address the very problem faced by the United Kingdom. And fundamentally there was a complete absence of any attempt to identify what sort of measures might be required.”

Mr Hancock agreed, saying: “The question simply wasn’t asked.”

Pandemic’s eventual impact ‘was reasonable worst case scenario’, says Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:58 , Andy Gregory

The pandemic’s impact on Britain “was essentially the reasonable worst-case scenario”, Matt Hancock has said.

Asked what predictions were based on in February of how badly a pandemic would hit the UK if the virus left China, Mr Hancock said: “The central variables in that are the IFR [infection fatality rate] ... this is much earlier than we knew the IFR. We didn’t know the transmissibility rate.

“Then of course the third factor would be the government and society’s response, which can affect the R rate. So we didn’t have the variables.

“But we did know that there was a significant chance of a pandemic. So it was 50/50 per cent chance of a global pandemic, and then within that there was a range of potential different outcomes – from essentially it just petering out like Sars did in the West, all the way through to basically what happened.

“Because what happened was essentially the reasonable worst-case scenario ... we assumed it would come and we assumed it would be terrible, and unfortunately that assumption turned out to be correct.”

Matt Hancock: ‘I did not want to decide who lived or died’

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:51 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock has 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.”

Lord Stevens previously told the inquiry that Mr Hancock believed that he – rather than doctors or the public – should decide “who should live and who should die” if hospitals became overwhelmed with Covid patients.

Covid inquiry counsel clashes with Hancock: ‘Do you use the word immediate or lockdown?'

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:42 , Andy Gregory

Cummings accuses Hancock of ‘talking rubbish’ on asymptomatic transmission

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:42 , Andy Gregory

Dominic Cummings has accused Matt Hancock of “talking rubbish” about asymptomatic Covid transmission in mid-March (see post at 12:14pm).

Boris Johnson’s ex-political aide said on Twitter/X that the health secretary “badly confused” the prime minister on the issue and “repeated the misinformation” to Cabinet – despite being told he was wrong by the chief scientific adviser.

My team was diverted from Covid to deal with manifesto commitments, Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:33 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has told the Covid inquiry his team was diverted from tackling Covid to help Boris Johnson deliver on his manifesto commitments.

The former health secretary said it would have been “far better” if that time had been spent on the “gathering storm” of Covid.

Dominic Cummings was responsible for a ‘culture of fear’, Matt Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:23 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock has said Dominic Cummings was responsible for a “culture of fear” which hamstrung the government’s response to the pandemic.

The former health secretary said the way Boris Johnson’s ex-top advisor forced the resignation of Sajid Javid as chancellor was of huge importance to the handling of Covid.

He said: “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.”

Dominic Cummings had ‘too great an influence’ on Boris Johnson, Hancock confirms

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:20 , Archie Mitchell

Dominic Cummings exerted too much influence on Boris Johnson during the pandemic, Matt Hancock has confirmed.

The former health secretary told the Covid inquiry that “at times” he exerted too great an influence on the ex-PM’s decision-making process.

He went on to describe how Mr Cummings “actively circumvented” emergency Cobra meetings and held his own meetings.

In one, Mr Cummings even said “decisions don’t need to go to the prime minister,” Mr Hancock claimed.

“Now that is inappropriate in a democracy, and I saw it simply as essentially a power grab,” he added.

Matt Hancock: ‘Dominic Cummings abused my staff’

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:16 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock has accused Dominic Cummings of abusing his staff during the pandemic.

The former health secretary said Mr Cummings was a “malign influence” in government 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.

‘I was not a liar… Dominic Cummings was a malign actor’ Matt Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:15 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock has described accusations he was a “liar” as health secretary as “false”.

“There's no evidence from anybody who I worked within the department or the health system who supported those false allegations,” Mr Hancock said.

In a damning question, inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC said: “How could important government advisors and officials have concluded that the Secretary of State for Health … was a liar?”

Mr Hancock again blamed the “toxic culture” at the centre of government, this time directly blaming Dominic Cummings. He said: “The toxic culture was caused by the chief adviser [Mr Cummings].”

He went on to describe Mr Cummings as a “malign actor”.

Hancock claims ‘fog of uncertainty’ over scientific advice about asymptomatic transmission

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:14 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock has insisted that there was a “fog of uncertainty” in the evidence he received about asymptomatic Covid transmission.

Hancock said: “I knew what [Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty knew] and I read the Sage minutes. As you’ll see, the Sage minutes and the various other things I did see at the time clearly state that ‘there may be’ or ‘there is likely some’, or there are all sorts of formulations of – in a fog of uncertainty – but it was all essentially unproven anecdote.”

Hugo Keith interjected: “You appear to give a suggestion the information you were given was itself contained within a fog of uncertainty. I’ve put to you the Nervtag meeting on 12 February stated: ‘The evidence suggests that 40 per cent of virologically confirmed cases are asymptomatic.’

“That’s not much of a fog, is it?”

Mr Hancock insisted he did not see that evidence at the time.

Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty: ‘Just as well Sage minutes are public’

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:03 , Archie Mitchell

Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty said it was “just as well” Sage meetings were public.

The chief scientific advisor and chief medical officer in July 2020 messaged each other about their confusion at Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson claiming they “did not know about asymptomatic transmission” in the early days of the pandemic.

“I have no idea, we did not know how important they were, that is correct. But we were aware of the possibility,” Professor Whitty said.

Sir Patrick said that by March “we were pretty clear that we thought there was asymptomatic transmission”.

“We will have to put up with quite a bit of this. Just as well Sage minutes are public domain,” Professor Whitty said.

Matt Hancock hits back at Dominic Cummings: ‘His evidence is not accurate'

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:02 , Andy Gregory

Our political correspondent Archie Mitchell reports:

Matt Hancock has hit back at Dominic Cummings, saying: “Much of that particular witness’s evidence is not accurate.”

The former health secretary was pressed on why he did not act on Mr Cummings’s warning that by the 11 March, it was “generally understood” that a large portion of Covid cases were transmitted asymptomatically.

But he said Mr Cummings, who has himself accused Mr Hancock of “flat out lying”, has not provided accurate evidence to the inquiry.

‘Not fair’ to say scientists knew for sure about asymptomatic transmission by mid-March, says Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 12:01 , Andy Gregory

Matt Hancock was confronted with messages from ex-chief medical officer Chris Whitty asking why he and Boris Johnson were claiming the government did not know about asymptomatic Covid transmission in March.

Pressed by Hugo Keith KC on the fact that despite uncertainty, he “simply had to plan on the basis that” Covid was asymptomatic “regardless of how strong the science was”, Mr Hancock replied: “It is not fair to say that the scientists knew for sure about this by mid-March.

“That’s just not how it was represented to me.”

 (Covid inquiry)
(Covid inquiry)

I was in the ‘let’s worry about asymptomatic transmission camp’, Matt Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 11:50 , Archie Mitchell

A visibly frustrated Matt Hancock has bemoaned “why could I not get Public Health England to change the scientific advice?” on asymptomatic transmission.

The former health secretary was pressed on why decisions were not made based on the assumption the virus could transmit between people without symptoms.

“It was obvious there was asymptomatic transmission”, inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC told Mr Hancock.

“I hope you can understand how frustrating this was,” Mr Hancock replied, insisting he was in the “let’s worry about asymptomatic transmission camp”.

My single greatest regret was not pushing harder on asymptomatic transmission, Hancock

Thursday 30 November 2023 11:43 , Archie Mitchell

Matt Hancock said his “single greatest regret” during the pandemic was not pushing harder to ensure decisions were taking account of the potential for asymptomatic transmission of Covid.

The former health secretary said he should have “overruled the formal scientific advice” he was receiving”.

He said he raised the issue in January 2020, and “kept pushing” throughout February.

However, policies were based on the “settled international view” that it was not transmitted asymptomatically.