Matt Hancock reveals 'biggest regret' of pandemic during COVID Inquiry grilling - what you missed today

The former health secretary faced uncomfortable questions about his handling of the pandemic.

Screen grab from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Live Stream of former health secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence at Dorland House in London, during its second investigation (Module 2) exploring core UK decision-making and political governance. Issue date: Thursday November 30, 2023.
Matt Hancock gives evidence during the COVID Inquiry. (PA)

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Matt Hancock has told the COVID-19 inquiry that his "single biggest regret" during the pandemic was not pushing harder on the risk of asymptomatic transmission.

At Thursday's session, the former health secretary said that in early 2020 there was a "fog of uncertainty" among the scientific community on this particular issue.

Hancock says he took warnings coming from China and Germany that Covid could be passed by people without symptoms seriously and thought it was best to play it safe.

He told the inquiry that the "anecdotal evidence" he had wasn't enough to sway UK scientists, advisers and, more importantly, policymakers.

However, the hearing was shown messages from chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who said they didn't understand why Hancock was saying they weren't aware of the risks.

Perhaps one of the most revelatory moments from Thursday's session was Hancock admitting that there was never a "protective ring" put around care homes as the government claimed. Really, all he'd done was provide additional PPE and funding for the sector.

With Thursday's session now over, here are the highlights from Matt Hancock's tough day of questioning:

  • Hancock described an "unhealthy toxic culture" of blame in government where anything that went wrong with his department was seen as an "intentional failure".

  • He said he pushed for lockdown during a call with Boris Johnson on 13 March 2020. He recalled this very clearly in his book, but the inquiry was puzzled as to why there was no record of such an important call in his diary.

  • He claimed he was always worried about asymptomatic transmission, and that his "single biggest regret" was not pushing harder on this issue. Sir Patrick Vallance and Sir Chris Whitty said they didn't understand why Hancock thought they weren't paying attention to this risk.

  • Responding to claims by several high-up advisers and civil servants that he was a "liar" who would get "over-excited and just say stuff", Hancock said those are "false allegations" and part of the so-called "toxic culture".

  • Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's former top adviser, instilled a "culture of fear" and tried to stage a "power grab which was "inappropriate in a democracy", Hancock claimed.

  • The former health secretary admitted, "in hindsight" that the UK should have locked-down much earlier, but that there were concerns at the time over how the public might react.

You can read more about Matt Hancock's testimony in our blog below.

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  • Yahoo News Uk

    Hancock says he didn't support a short 'circuit breaker' lockdown

    Matt Hancock said that he did not support the idea of a short lockdown, also known as a circuit breaker, 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 1, 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.”

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Treasury clashed with Hancock over opening up from lockdown

    Matt Hancock has faced a difficult day of questioning at Dorland House in London. (Alamy)

    Matt Hancock has described being at loggerheads with the Treasury, and in some cases Boris Johnson, over the lifting of lockdown measures.

    He was asked at the inquiry if the former prime minister had a "consistent approach" during debates on "opening up" after the first lockdown.

    Hancock replied: “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.”

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Matt Hancock 'wasn't aware of Eat Out to Help Out scheme until it was announced'

    Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak rolled out the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to help businesses. (Alamy)

    Matt Hancock was not aware of the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme until it was announced, the Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

    The initiative was announced by then-chancellor and now prime minister Rishi Sunak on 8 July to revitalise the restaurant sector after the first lockdown in the summer of 2020. It took effect the following month.

    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.”

    The then-health secretary said he argued “very strongly” against the extension of the scheme in the summer of 2020.

    “Once it announced it was a done deal that it was government policy," he said.

    “I expressed caution and argued very strongly against its extension at the end of August, and I don’t think its extension was ever seriously in prospect.”

    Hancock described the scheme as "unhelpful" but said there had been “undue focus” on the initiative.

    "It was unhelpful to be that the state should be subsidising people to go out at the same time as asking people to be more cautious," he added.

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Matt Hancock admits there was never a 'protective ring' around care homes

    Matt Hancock was grilled over his claim that a "protective ring" had been placed around care homes during the pandemic.

    Lead counsel Hugo Keith KC suggested that the term would have led people to imagine an "impermeable barrier" had been formed to keep residents safe.

    "I entirely understand why people feel strongly about this. When I first said that I then went on to explain what I meant," Hancock said.

    The former health secretary said that the government had put more than £3bn into the care sector in March and April, provided free PPE and issued infection control guidance based on scientific advice. He mentioned an additional £600m later issued for infection control.

    "I was trying to simply summarise that we had taken action, and I set out the action," Hancock said.

    Keith referred to the witness statement of former deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam, who said: "My view is a ring is a circle without a break in it."

    The lead counsel said: "However you describe the protective processes you put in place around the care sector, they did not form an unbroken circle."

    Hancock conceded: "It is quite clear from the evidence that Professor Van Tam is right."

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Hancock denies 'creative counting' over passing COVID test target

    The COVID inquiry was shown a message from former cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill about Hancock exceeding his target for 100,000 tests per day.

    Hancock was accused at the time of counting tests that had not yet been taken by people.

    The message sent to the former health secretary said: “Well done this evening. Creative counting and 122k!”

    Hugo Keith KC asked Hancock: “Do you accept or reject the suggestion of creative counting?”

    Hancock said: “I reject it, and on every different way you could possibly count these measures, we hit that target.”

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Does the UK have testing ready for a future pandemic?

    Matt Hancock has raised concerns about the UK's current testing capability. (Alamy)

    Matt Hancock questioned whether the UK is ready now on testing if another pandemic was to emerge.

    He aired his concern that a testing system capable of being rapidly scaled up might not be ready to go if a new disease emerges.

    Hancock told the inquiry: “It’s a vital, vital lesson for the future that we need a testing system ready to go, and I’m worried that that is not there right now in case there’s a pandemic.

    “What happens if one of these things, one of these diseases that we’ve read about in the last couple of weeks, the influenza in northern China becomes a pandemic?

    "My question now to the secretary of state (for health) would be how quickly can we get to 100,000 tests? How quickly are we going to get a vaccine? How quickly are we going to have 5,000 people in a call centre doing contact tracing?”

    He said the testing system set up in the pandemic had been understandably “stepped down” but added: “What you need is the ability very rapidly to put it back in place.”

    Asked if he has concerns about the UK’s ability to step testing back up, Hancock said: “That is what I’m concerned about. For instance, recently one of the major labs was put on the market. I think it would be better if it were mothballed and ready to go at the flick of a switch.”

  • Yahoo News Uk

    'Spectacular imbalance of spending' between health and defence in UK, Hancock claims

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

    The former health secretary told the inquiry: “We spend £50bn a year on physical defence and we spend less than half a billion pounds a year on UKHSA.

    “We spend less than 1% 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.

    "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.

    “And I’ve got one particular axe to grind I attended the National Security Council in my role as secretary of state occasionally.

    "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.”

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Hancock explains why Public Health England was disbanded

    The former health secretary has told the inquiry why he had concerns about Public Health England's performance early on the pandemic.

    "Public Health England did an absolutely superb job, especially on the scientific research," Matt Hancock told the inquiry.

    "The best early example was developing the test in an extremely short period of time.

    "Its geonomics programme was superb, there was one point in the pandemic when we were sequencing half of the genomes of Covid in the world."

    However, he said the body's "capacity to scale was simply not there", adding that it "hadn't had the experience" of dealing with such a widespread health crisis.

    Its contact tracing system was based on "top quality, highly trained experts", when it needed a broader approach, he said.

    "It was deeply frustrating that there was an unenthusiasm, if I put it diplomatically, to engage with private sector testing capacity and I personally had to get involved in sorting that out," Hancock added.

    "It wouldn't engage any private commercial entity. I wanted them to support any private entity that could expand testing capacity."

    On 29 March 2021, the government announced that PHE would be disbanded with its functions transferred to other bodies, including the UKHSA.

  • Yahoo News Uk

    'We knew it would be catastrophic': Hancock tells inquiry expected level of damage to NHS

    Hospitals across the country were overwhelmed by COVID patients. (Getty Images)

    When asked about a Sage assessment on the impact the COVID pandemic would have on the NHS, Matt Hancock painted a grim picture.

    "The true answer to that question is, nobody fully knew what that would look like, but we knew that it would be catastrophic," Hancock said.

    He said it looked like the UK was heading for the worst-case scenario in the run-up to the first national lockdown.

    He said this would mean "people going without treatment", adding: "I was absolutely determined that that would not happen."

    Hancock added: "Of course the NHS would have survived, it would have done its level best - it is an amazing and adaptable institution full of extraordinary people, but it would not have been able to provide care to everybody.

    "Therefore, the number of people who died would have gone up, even more than it would have done just because of the virus."

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Why order 'politically divisive lockdown' one week after 'stay at home order'?

    Hancock was asked why the UK imposed a full lockdown on 23 March 2020 before waiting to see the impact of the 16 March "stay at home" order.

    The former health secretary argued the idea of locking down wasn't as "politically divisive" at the time as COVID was spreading rapidly at the time.

    He said data suggested measures in place at the time weren't getting the R-rate (the speed at which the virus reproduces) below 1.

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Former health secretary Matt Hancock arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London, during its second investigation (Module 2) exploring core UK decision-making and political governance. Picture date: Thursday November 30, 2023.
Matt Hancock arrives to give evidence to the UK COVID-19 Inquiry. (PA)