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Matt Hancock: Some regional leaders put ‘politics ahead of public health’

Matt Hancock told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he found local political leaders in Liverpool easier to deal with than those in Manchester, in an apparent swipe at Andy Burnham.

Mr Hancock praised Liverpool’s former mayor at the inquiry on Friday, but said other regional leaders “were not constructive”, adding in some cases he thought they gave “actively unhelpful input that I felt put politics ahead of public health”.

Asked whether he was referring to Manchester after an entry in Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary detailed difficult negotiations with the city over tier restrictions, the former health secretary 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.”

Responding to the apparent criticism, a spokesperson for Mr Burnham, who has served as Mayor of Greater Manchester since 2017, said: “That may be Mr Hancock’s opinion, but he’s wrong.

“The mayor and 10 leaders in Greater Manchester, including a Conservative leader, spent many hours trying to negotiate a deal with the Government and the chief of staff at 10 Downing Street.

“It would not have been right to place further restrictions on the residents of Greater Manchester without the financial package to support them.”

Earlier this week, Mr Burnham told the inquiry that Mr Hancock knew tier 3 restrictions would not work when he imposed them on Greater Manchester.

The Greater Manchester Mayor accused the Government of administering a “punishment beating” for the city in late 2020, following an argument over financial support for residents who were unable to work due to the restrictions.

In a witness statement to the inquiry referring to the Government’s tier system of Covid restrictions, Mr Hancock wrote: “I was in despair that we had announced a policy that we knew would not work.”

Explaining his comment, the former health secretary said: “When I say that I knew that wouldn’t work it was because local leadership had, up to that point, largely demonstrated that they were under significant political pressure not to accept measures.”

During his appearance at the inquiry, Mr Hancock praised the former Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, for his “spirit of collaboration” during negotiations over the tier system despite being a Labour politician.

The former health secretary told the Covid inquiry: “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.”

In response to Mr Hancock’s comment about Mr Anderson being “no longer with us”, the Mayor of Liverpool from 2012 to 2021 posted on social media: “Just took my pulse and I seem to still be here and I feel ok.”