Matt Hancock says he tried to ‘wake up Whitehall’ to Covid threat in early 2020

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Former UK health secretary Matt Hancock came out fighting on Thursday, telling the Covid-19 inquiry he tried to “wake up Whitehall” to the virus’s threat in early 2020 and attacking a “toxic” culture in Boris Johnson’s government.

Hancock, who has been fiercely criticised by several former government aides and officials in evidence so far, said that at times during the health crisis he felt he was being “blocked” by senior government officials.

He said that while he had sought to “drive the system forward”, officials “simply didn’t cotton on to the fact that this enormous wave was coming” months before the UK entered lockdown in March 2020.

“From the middle of January, we were trying to effectively raise the alarm,” he said. “We were trying to wake up Whitehall to the scale of the problem.”

There should have been a “whole-of-government response” earlier on, he said.

Hancock, who quit as health secretary in June 2021 after admitting to breaking social-distancing guidance by kissing his adviser, also blamed an “unhealthy toxic culture” at the heart of government for the spread of “misinformation” about the Department of Health and Social Care.

“We rubbed up against this deep unpleasantness at the centre,” said Hancock, adding that “anything that went wrong was seen as an almost intentional failure”.

Hancock’s comments add to the series of damaging testimony from former top officials and ministers about Britain’s response to the pandemic under Johnson, prime minister between 2019 and 2022.

The inquiry is examining the government’s response to Covid, including the UK’s preparedness and senior decision-making, and is due to run until the summer of 2026. Johnson is due to give evidence to the inquiry next week.

Hancock, who became health secretary in 2018, said there was not an “absence of a plan, there were plans” to deal with a pandemic.

“I’ve critiqued the plans, I’ve said that they weren’t adequate but there were plans in place,” he said.

In a series of damning testimonies, former senior officials have criticised Hancock’s role during Covid. In private messages from 2020 seen by the inquiry, Johnson was told by Dominic Cummings, then his chief adviser, that Hancock’s “uselessness” was “killing” people.

Helen MacNamara, deputy cabinet secretary when the pandemic began, told the inquiry this month that Hancock displayed “nuclear levels of confidence” and would regularly tell the cabinet there were plans in place to deal with the virus when this was not the case.

Hancock rejected that claim on Thursday, saying: “The same people who are accusing me of over-confidence were at the same time blocking the action that I was saying we needed.”

MacNamara said in evidence that a “pattern” developed in which Hancock would tell officials “something was absolutely fine” only for them to later discover “it was very, very far from fine”.

Asked if he “kept too much in the DHSC” in 2020 and failed to share the true picture of the unfolding crisis with Whitehall officials, Hancock said the allegation was “completely the wrong way around”.

He added that “getting the machine at the centre of government up and running was incredibly hard and took a huge amount of effort”.

In diary entries seen by the inquiry on Thursday, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser when the pandemic began, wrote of a “massive internal mess inside DHSC and PHE [Public Health England]” in early 2020.

Lord Mark Sedwill, the UK’s top civil servant between 2018 and 2020, said there was a “clear lack of grip in DHSC”, according to another diary entry.

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