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Matt Hancock tells Covid Inquiry: We could have done more to keep schools open

Schools could have stayed open in the pandemic if the government had acted quicker to order the second national lockdown, Matt Hancock has claimed.

The former Health Secretary said he argued for tougher restrictions from September 2020 amid rising numbers of cases of Covid-19, and believes the UK was too slow to lockdown during the autumn of that year.

He said there was an increasing battle among MPs to “win the argument” over lockdowns, with campaigns against them growing in strength.

A second lockdown was ultimately ordered at the start of November 2020, and a third national lockdown began in January 2021.

Mr Hancock told the Public Inquiry: “I think if we had taken action sooner in September 2020 we might have avoided the need to close schools.

“In the end we had to do so because cases were so high by January (2021).”

He described the third lockdown as “harrowing”, as Covid cases continued to rise despite tough restrictions due to the emergence of a new variant.

“If you don’t lockdown early, you have a tougher lockdown with more economic damage, as well as greater numbers of deaths and more damage to the health of the nation”, he added.

Mr Hancock was accused earlier in the Inquiry of imposing a “punishment beating” on Manchester by placing it into Tier 3 restrictions in 2020, despite privately admitting that those measures “would not work”.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham gave evidence of his anger at the revelation, but Mr Hancock suggested the Labour politician had caused the situation himself.

He said the Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson was “incredibly supportive” and negotiated successfully with the government, with his city ending up with less restrictive measures.

“Others were not constructive and in some cases actively unhelpful and I felt put politics ahead of public health”, he said, in a reference to Mr Burnham.

Mr Hancock was also questioned briefly about his notorious breach of the pandemic rules and resignation in June 2021, after he was caught cheating on his wife with his political aide Gina Coladangelo.

He accepted the incident - and other rule-breaking by senior figures - was “damaging” to public confidence, telling the inquiry: “It is important those who make the rules abide by them, and I resigned in order to take accountability for my failure to do that.”

On Thursday, Mr Hancock faced a full day of questions about the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The former minister has been accused by other Inquiry witnesses of lying about plans to cope with the pandemic, of having “nuclear levels” of overconfidence, and being “overoptimistic” about the country’s ability to cope with the pandemic.

His fiercest critic has been Dominic Cummings, the first senior Number 10 aide who repeatedly pushed then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fire Mr Hancock and said in WhatsApp messages that the Health Secretary had “lied his way through this and killed people and dozens and dozens of people have seen it”.

Mr Hancock rejected the allegations in his evidence on Thursday, and accused Mr Cummings of creating a “culture of fear” in Government which undermined the UK’s pandemic response. He said there was a “toxic culture” within the centre of government, at times spreading misinformation about the work of health officials, and claimed Mr Cummings was a “malign actor” who subjected staff to abuse and attempted to grab power from ministers and Mr Johnson himself.

The Inquiry is examining the Eat Out to Help Out scheme launched by then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak in summer 2020, amid claims it helped to fuel the spread of Covid.

Mr Hancock said he only found out about the scheme in an Cabinet meeting on the day of its launch, and says he lobbied “very strongly” against it being extended into the autumn. He added that the scheme – which Mr Sunak is expected to face questions on later this month – was ultimately “unhelpful” as the government was subsidising people to go out at the same time as advising them to be cautious. In his evidence, Mr Hancock also conceded for the first time that care homes across the UK had not been fully protected at the outset of the pandemic.

On May 15, 2020, Mr Hancock told a Downing Street press conference: “Right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”

But he accepted under questioning that there had not been an “unbroken circle” in place to protect care home residents.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to face two days of questions at the Inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday next week.