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Former health secretary Matt Hancock said during the pandemic he was concerned that Rishi Sunak was pressuring Boris Johnson "to not do enough" regarding COVID lockdown measures.
Giving evidence to the COVID-19 Inquiry, Hancock said on Friday he was “very worried” about “rearguard action” from other members of the government when pushing for more stringent measures to stop the spread of coronavirus in autumn 2020.
It comes after a WhatsApp exchange between the former health secretary and Simon Case was shown to the inquiry, revealing then chancellor Rishi Sunak questioned the need to close all shops rather than taking action in secondary schools.
Hancock replied he could “live with” those measures but was “very worried about a rearguard action that just screwed us all over too often”.
In a text referencing a meeting that Hancock claimed he was blocked from attending, Hancock wrote to Case: “Rishi is in the room – contrary to the stupid rules – so the PM will be under enormous pressure to not do enough once again."
Additionally, Hancock claimed anti-lockdown MPs had formed a group that was putting pressure on the prime minister.
Hancock told the COVID-19 Inquiry: “Those arguing against lockdown in Parliament were formulating a group – they were co-ordinated, they were campaigning, and this became more of a problem later on.
“And so we needed to keep parliamentary consent and public support. And that was one of the reasons that I thought in practice a circuit breaker proposal wasn’t the best way forward.”
With Friday's session now over, here are the highlights from Matt Hancock's tough day of questioning:
Hancock told inquiry that he was “in despair” after the government announced a tier system it “knew would not work”. He believed it would not be effective because local politicians were “under significant pressure” not to accept measures.
Hancock was questioned over his affair with Gina Coladangelo, and whether breaching lockdown rules had undermined the public's confidence in them. He said: "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."
School closures could have been avoided in January 2021 if the government had acted more swiftly in autumn 2020, Hancock said. "If we’d have 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 as cases were so high by January," he explained.
Boris Johnson was “not willing” to go further in terms of national restrictions to ease the spread of Covid-19 in the autumn of 2020, Hancock claimed.
Hancock was warned in April 2020 that there was a lack of testing in care homes, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry was told. However, he said: "We didn’t have enough tests and the clinical prioritisation of who got tests in what order was absolutely something that I wouldn’t have interfered with.”
You can read more about Matt Hancock's testimony in our blog below.
'To stop healthcare workers dying, you had to stop COVID,' says Hancock
Matt Hancock was asked how he was able to advocate for healthcare workers by Brian Stanton from the British Medical Association, who said they needed time to recover from the virus.
"To stop healthcare workers dying, you had to stop COVID," Hancock said.
Hancock warned over care home testing
Matt Hancock was warned in April 2020 that there was a lack of testing in care homes, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has been told.
A WhatsApp message, sent on April 4, 2020, to Hancock by his adviser Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, was read out at the inquiry.
It stated: “On testing, do we need to have a specific strand/push on testing in care homes? We are testing hospital admissions and clinical patients at risk.
“Do we also need a push on testing people in care? Or at least have some sort of focused effort on testing people in care.
“I know it is complex and the people dying in care homes are often people who were near the end regardless, but I worry that if a load of people in care start dying, there will be front pages demanding why we weren’t testing people in care homes. Do we need to get ahead of this now?”
Hancock’s WhatsApp response to the message was then read out. It stated: “Let’s have rapid advice on this tying together all the angles.”
Responding to the WhatsApps, the former health secretary told the inquiry: “The reason that we did not at that point have as much testing in care homes as many would have wanted, was that we didn’t have enough tests and the clinical prioritisation of who got tests in what order was absolutely something that I wouldn’t have interfered with.”
Hancock snaps at lawyer 'I can read'
Asked about messages exchanged between himself and junior health minister Helen Whately, in which she wrote: "Wish we could loosen on children under 12 on rule of six for tier 1," Hancock snapped at Rajiv Menon KC.
Menon read the messages, and asked Hancock: “Can you see that?”
Hancock snapped back: “Of course I can see it I can read thank you.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” Menon replied.
Hancock accuses Sturgeon of being 'unhelpful'
Former first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, would communicate with the public “in a way that was unhelpful and confusing”, according to former health secretary Matt Hancock.
The COVID-19 Inquiry was shown WhatsApp messages from Hancock from July 2020, regarding communications around travel from Spain and quarantine.
When told that No 10 wanted to communicate the matter “ASAP”, Hancock replied: “Me too. It will leak anyway – and the Scots will try to get their announcement out first.”
Asked by a representative of the Scottish COVID bereaved: “What is the issue with the First Minister communicating that to the people of Scotland first?”
Hancock said: “There were a number of moments when the first minister of Scotland would communicate in a way that was unhelpful and confusing to the public.
“And sometimes, (she) would leave a meeting and begin communication of a decision, for instance, sooner than agreed.”
He added: “We found it much more difficult when decisions went up to first minister level, particularly with Nicola Sturgeon.
“Because we would find that sometimes some kind of spin was put on what was essentially substantively the same decision. So it was a frustration, I’ve got to be honest about that.”
What were the Covid rules at the time of Hancock’s ‘embrace’
According to Hancock, ‘social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them’.
Hancock says former Liverpool mayor 'no longer with us', despite him being alive
Matt Hancock told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he found local political leaders in Liverpool easier to deal with than those in Manchester.
He praised the former Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, for his “spirit of collaboration” during negotiations over the tier system.
The former health secretary said: “Joe Anderson – unfortunately, no longer with us – he was incredibly supportive.
“And we ended up in Liverpool having a package of measures that was effective after a very constructive negotiation.”
Anderson, who is 65, is still alive. However he is no longer mayor.
Hancock added that other local politicians were “not constructive”.
Asked about a reference in Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary regarding difficult negotiations with Manchester, Mr Hancock said: “Yes, I would say the diary entry might be better written as political leadership in Liverpool and political leadership in Manchester – I have got no beef with the fine City of Manchester.”
Hancock questioned over affair with Gino Coladangelo
The former health secretary, who famously breached social distancing rules by Gina Coladangelo while he was married, was asked whether rule breaches affected the public's ability to adhere to them.
"What I'd say is 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 that," he said.
Hancock says COVID decisions were 'choice between difficult options'
Matt Hancock told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that “every decision was a choice between difficult options”, as he discussed the decision to discharge hospital patients to care homes.
The former health secretary said that leaving patients in hospital would have made them “more likely to have caught Covid because of the risks of nosocomial infection”, adding that “it was rational and reasonable to make sure that they were in the safest place that they could be”.
Hancock said: “I fear that if we had left those patients in hospital – those who were medically fit to discharge – there is a high likelihood that more would have caught Covid and the problem could have been bigger.”
He added that he had not heard of a solution to the problem of discharging patients that in hindsight would have “resulted in more lives saved”.