Matt Hancock accused of ‘flat out lying’ by Dominic Cummings as he appears before Covid inquiry

30 November 2023, 09:10 | Updated: 30 November 2023, 15:41

Matt Hancock is appearing before the Covid inquiry today
Matt Hancock is appearing before the Covid inquiry today. Picture: Covid inquiry

By Asher McShane

Matt Hancock was appearing before the Covid inquiry today after being criticised by a string of senior figures.

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He has been repeatedly labelled a liar, and incompetent by witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry.

He has promised to answer ‘all questions when he gives his evidence’

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That's all for today - take a look at the latest on the Covid inquiry here

Hancock was 'sceptical' about stopping contact tracing and community testing in March

"On the 12th of March, it had been announced that we were going to stop community testing and stop contact tracing," he said. 

"I don't want to overplay it because I didn't actively stop it but I was sceptical of whether we should stop these things. 

 "I'd been trying to drive up testing, trying to get PHE (Public Health England) to engage the private sector in testing. And I basically, at this point, had the confidence to say what I'd previously thought, urged on by the WHO (World Health Organisation), which was 'what on earth are we doing stopping these things?'" 

 He said he had "issued the instruction internally that we should not accept that these have to stop", but when pressed by inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith, said he did not know the detail of what his instructions had been. 

 Mr Hancock added: "What I remember is, firstly, the approaches were different on testing and on contact tracing. On testing, the problem at this point was that we didn't have enough tests for community testing." 

 Mr Hancock said that at a meeting on March 17, which he said had been arranged to try and "electrify the growth of testing", he had taken responsibility for testing from PHE (Public Health England) "back into the department and drove it very hard from there".

Hancock called for a lockdown in March after speaking to Italian counterpart

Former health secretary Matt Hancock has said he starting calling for a lockdown in March after speaking with his Italian counterpart. 

 He told the Covid inquiry about his conversation with Italian minister of health Roberto Speranza. 

 "We thought the Italians had acted early, but he was saying he wished he'd acted earlier this. 

 "And this argument that you should delay and time it right, he had no truck with. 

 "And so that had a very significant impact on me. And that was the point at which I started actively agitating for very firm action, for a lockdown. 

 "I spoke to the prime minister, I emailed him that evening."

No10 was 'stopping Boris Johnson from saying anything publicly about the virus in Feb 2020'

Matt Hancock has told the Covid-19 Inquiry he believed No10 was stopping then prime minister Boris Johnson from saying anything publicly about the virus in February 2020. 

 He also claims he was not allowed to give radio interviews on the subject. Referencing Mr Hancock's witness statement inquiry counsel Hugo Keith asked if he believed No10 was stopping Mr Johnson from speaking about Covid-19 due to "a concern that it would be seen to be overreacting". 

Mr Hancock confirmed this, adding that he was told on the evening of February 27 that based on figures at the time there was a "reasonable worst case scenario of just over half a million people dying". 

Mr Hancock told the probe he spoke to Mr Johnson on the phone: "It was quite a moment. I came out and I said 'prime minister, you need to chair a Cobra and we need to be able to communicate properly, including on all of the programme's instead of having this political boycott'. And that led to - I wanted a Cobra that day, and I told him he should chair a Cobra immediately. In the end, we had the Cobra on the Monday which I think was March 2. 

 "Over that weekend, I went out and communicated in public about all the things that we might have to do. We might have to close some schools. We might have to shut down whole cities. I don't rule anything out, I said." 

There was 'absolutely not' enough being done on infection control by mid-February 2020

Inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC questioned him on plans for non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) at the time. 

 Mr Keith said: "As the secretary of state for health, you have to acknowledge, Mr Hancock, that by the 14th of February, there were still no plans for infection control in existence. 

 "There was a 2011 strategy report. You had, to be fair to you, commissioned a battle plan. But nothing had been committed to paper, had it?" 

 Mr Hancock responded: "If your point is 'was enough going on?', absolutely not.

"To the degree that there was something going on, there was clearly not enough."

It 'should've been' a vital moment when Sage concluded China had failed to contain Covid

Matt Hancock said it "should have been" a vital moment for the Government when Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) concluded by February 13 2020 that China had failed to contain Covid-19.

Mr Hancock said he did not recall when he was told about Sage's view. 

 Lead counsel to the inquiry, Hugo Keith KC put it to him: "That was a seminal moment. In the context of this debate, you were told there's a 50/50 scenario, it's contained or it's not. And if it's not, then subject to sustained community transmission, it's game over. 

 "Being told formally, the Government machine was informed formally on the 13th of February that China had failed. 

 "Would you acknowledge that that was a vital moment?" 

 Mr Hancock replied: "It certainly should have been."

Covid inquiry resumes

Matt Hancock is continuing to face questions on the government's handling of the pandemic. 

Before the break, he claimed Cummings gave inaccurate evidence.

Cummings responds to more of Hancock's evidence

Cummings has responded to more of Hancock's evidence - taking issue with his claims about asymptomatic transmission.

Hancock accuses Cummings of creating "toxic culture" in Number 10

Hancock has claimed Dominic Cummings created a "toxic culture" within Number 10.

“There was a culture of fear inculcated by this particular individual [Dominic Cummings],” Hancock told the inquiry.

“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.”

Cummings made 'power grab' that was ‘inappropriate in a democracy,’ says Hancock

Hancock said he believed Cummings exerted too great an influence over government and made a "power grab" to "circumvent" proper government systems.

Hancock said Cummings "didn’t like the Cobra system" that was running in February 2020 and "decided instead to take all the daily major decisions into his office".

“He invited a subset of the people who needed to be there to these meetings. He didn’t invite ministers; he didn’t regard ministers as being a valuable contribution to any decision-making as far as I could see.

“He took the decisions, attempted to take them from the Cobra process and into a meeting that he ran daily at 8am.

“The reason these meetings are important is that there is a proper Government emergency response system, and it was actively circumvented, and in one of these early meetings the chief adviser said: ‘Decisions don’t need to go to the prime minister’.

"That is inappropriate in a democracy. I saw it essentially as a power grab, but it definitely got in the way of organising the response.”