LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 01: Britain’s former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, leaves after testifying for the second time at the Covid inquiry on December 1, 2023 in London, England. The UK’s former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be questioned at phase 2 of the Covid-19 Inquiry over decision-making in Downing Street during the pandemic. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
At the Covid inquiry, Matt Hancock asserted that tens of thousands of lives might have been spared had the UK implemented a lockdown three weeks earlier. He described Boris Johnson’s Downing Street operation as affected by a “culture of fear.”
Hancock detailed instances of his staff encountering mistreatment from Dominic Cummings. Additionally, he claimed that Johnson’s former chief adviser tried to sideline ministers, including Johnson himself, from crucial decisions at the onset of the pandemic, which hindered the government’s response, The Guardian reported.
“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,” said Hancock.
“The way to lead in a crisis like this is to give people the confidence to do what they think needs to happen. And it caused the opposite of that.”
Hancock contended that, in hindsight, the optimal timing for the initial lockdown would have been three weeks before the actual date of March 23, 2020. He suggested that this earlier action could have potentially averted approximately 90% of the death toll during the initial Covid wave, saving more than 30,000 lives.
“With hindsight, the first moment we realistically could have cracked it was 2 March,” he said.
“That’s the moment we should have done it, and it would have saved many, many lives.”
While consistently expressing criticism towards Cummings, referring to him as “a malign actor” who spread misinformation, Hancock refrained from attributing the delay to dysfunction within No. 10.
He said that during that period, the progress of the virus was uncertain, whereas the repercussions of implementing a lockdown were “known and huge.”
Hancock, however painted a vivid picture of clashes in personalities and what he labelled as “a power grab” by Cummings.
Additionally, he mentioned being unaware of then Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s prominent “Eat out to help out” initiative aimed at subsidising restaurant meals in the summer of 2020 until the day it was publicly announced.
Messages presented during the inquiry revealed exchanges between Hancock and Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, later that summer.
In these messages, Hancock expressed his stance against extending the scheme. It was, he wrote, “causing problems in our intervention areas – I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious.”
Hancock also faced rigorous and occasionally challenging interrogation from Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry’s lead counsel. Keith pressed Hancock to substantiate his assertion that he urged Johnson to enforce a lockdown on March 13, 2020.
Additionally, Hancock was prompted to acknowledge that the claim of a “protective ring” around care homes had been misleading.
Detailing the events leading up to the pandemic, Hancock said that in February 2020, Cummings disrupted the standard emergency meeting protocol by organising a daily meeting in his office involving “a subset” of individuals.
Hancock said, “He didn’t invite any ministers. He didn’t regard ministers as a valuable contribution to any decision-making as far as I could see in the crisis or, indeed, any other time.”
Cummings, he added, advised at the time that decisions “don’t need to go to the prime minister.”
At the time, Hancock said that this arrangement significantly hampered the response to the virus.
In additional testimony to the inquiry, Hancock rebutted criticisms suggesting that the health department he helmed in 2020 was disorganised and prone to making exaggerated commitments.
He claimed that the department frequently addressed tasks that had been overlooked by other sectors of the government.
“From the middle of January  we were effectively trying to raise the alarm, trying to wake up Whitehall to the scale of the problem,” he said.
Establishing the machinery at the core of the government was an immensely challenging task and demanded an enormous amount of effort Hancock said.
He added, “We rubbed up against this deep unpleasantness at the centre. It was unhelpful in assuming that when anything was difficult or a challenge therefore there was somehow fault and blame.”
Keith confronted Hancock regarding his statement made at a Covid press conference in mid-May 2020, where Hancock mentioned that ministers had established “a protective ring” around care homes from the onset of the pandemic.
The former health secretary acknowledged that, in hindsight, this statement was misleading. “I was trying to simply summarise that we had taken action,” Hancock said. “I entirely understand why people feel strongly about this.”
Furthermore, Leslie Thomas KC, representing the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations, inquired about the measures Hancock undertook to collaborate with ethnic minority leaders in light of the high number of deaths among ethnic minorities.
Hancock responded by stating that he “engaged with NHS leadership” concerning the deaths across all backgrounds but said his particular focus was on the fatalities among minorities and the issue of racism within the NHS.
He noted that his concern regarding racism within the NHS predated the pandemic, stating that it was an issue he was worried about “well before the pandemic.”
When questioned about the measures taken to alleviate the pandemic’s impact on minority healthcare workers and patients, Hancock detailed several actions, such as ensuring individuals had access to properly fitting PPE.
He further commented that he observed a disproportionate impact on various minority groups, attributing this partially to their disproportionate employment in patient-facing roles.
Upon being asked if this outcome was, in part, due to structural inequalities, Hancock affirmed, stating “yes.
Liz Davies KC, representing Solace Womens Aid and Southall Black Sisters, brought up the issue of domestic violence.
In ordinary circumstances, she noted, women facing violence at home would often seek refuge at a sister’s, mother’s, or friend’s place for some respite.
She asked why, during the spring of 2020, there were no provisions in the regulations to permit women at risk to seek sanctuary in this manner.
Hancock responded that he did not recollect this being raised. However, he expressed confidence that if it had been, measures would likely have been implemented as the risk of virus transmission would have been relatively low.
Davies then inquired whether the evident surge in domestic abuse by the summer was a consideration for Hancock when confronting the possibility of a second wave of Covid.
Hancock acknowledged that the rise in domestic abuse was one of the acknowledged consequences of lockdown.
However, he emphasised that it needed to be balanced against the impact of the virus and the necessity of implementing further lockdown measures.