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Matt Hancock Says Health Department "Rose To The Challenge" Of Covid-19 Pandemic

Matt Hancock gave evidence to the Inquiry on Thursday (Covid Inquiry)

4 min read

Former health secretary Matt Hancock has defended his record leading the Department for Health and Social Care during the pandemic to the Covid-19 Inquiry, arguing that he had been the one urging the government to take action against the virus sooner.

Answering questions by Hugo Keith KC, Counsel to the Inquiry, Hancock argued that the DHSC had "risen to the challenge" of dealing with huge scale pandemic, despite wide-ranging criticism levelled at him in previous evidence sessions with government figures. 

“There was a reluctance to get the Cobra machine going, we've seen some of the evidence of certain individuals thinking we were overreacting or the world had gone mad… I felt I had to drive the machine forward, I had this sense of responsibility," Hancock said.

Responding to accusations, including from former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance that Hancock had taken too much power for the DHSC in the early months of the pandemic, he claimed that he had felt that while other departments were stalling, it was up to the DHSC to step in.

“In terms of lessons learnt, what is crucial is that any department in future is ready to go," he continued.

“It brought us flack later and evidently flack at the time that I wasn’t aware of because these weren’t raised with me personally.”

Hancock argued that criticism from other government figures was on the basis that it was the "culture of Cabinet Office" to be "sceptical" of other departments. 

He also said that there had not been an "absence of a plan", as previously argued by former senior civil servant Helen Macnamara, but that there had been flaws with the existing plan.

“This was the first major pandemic in living memory, there wasn’t anybody who had responded to it, none of my living predecessors had had to deal with anything on this scale," Hancock said.

He also described the "toxic culture" in the centre of government, reflecting comments from others who described chaotic decision making at the time.

“I tried to lead a positive, can-do culture” that focused on “how do we fix this?” Hancock said.

“Unfortunately we rubbed up against this deep unpleasantness at the centre.”

He said there was a "great deal of hard work on our side and a toxic culture that we had to work with which seemed to want to find people to blame".

“If there is a malign actor in No10, if there are people whose behaviour is unprofessional, the system needs to be able to work despite that," he added, suggesting Cummings had been such an influence.

The former health secretary also denied ever having lied to ministers and advisers, as suggested by Cummings, Macnamara and Vallance in previous sessions.

“The impact of the toxic culture that essentially was caused by the chief adviser, clearly I can now see others were brought into, that was unhelpful," he said.

"On the other hand, in the heat of the crisis, people say things especially on WhatsApp, that may not be their full and considered opinion.”

On the allegations that he lied during the pandemic, he said there is no "evidence whatsoever".

The Inquiry asked Hancock about claims in his witness statement that, in late January 2020, his team at the Department of Health was still being "dragged into" meetings in No10 about fulfilling manifesto commitments.

He responded that this had been an issue, and that time should have been spent on “preparing for the gathering storm” rather than looking at manifesto commitments.

Hancock was also asked about whether he had been aware of the risk of asymptomatic transmission and whether the government response had acted accordingly to the evidence.

"My single greatest regret in hindsight was not pushing on this harder and ultimately not overruling the formal scientific advice I was receiving," he responded, arguing that while he was aware of the risk, the scientific advice at the time was that asymptomatic transmission of the virus would be low and there was an assumption that Covid transmission should be seen as similar to SARS.

“This is an example of where the scientific method comes into challenge in a period of enormous change and uncertainty," Hancock said.

Evidence was shown of messages between the then-Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser saying they had known about the high risk asymptomatic transmission at the time, in which they seemed astounded at the prime minister and health secretary suggesting otherwise. 

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