Matt Hancock 'thought he should decide who lives or dies, not doctors if NHS was overwhelmed during the pandemic'

2 November 2023, 11:49 | Updated: 2 November 2023, 11:51

Simon Stevens Former Chief Executive of the National Health Service, was before the Covid inquiry today
Simon Stevens Former Chief Executive of the National Health Service, was before the Covid inquiry today. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

Matt Hancock wanted to decide "who should live and who should die" if hospitals became overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, a former chief executive of NHS England has told the Covid inquiry.

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Lord Simon Stevens's witness statement said: "The secretary of state for health and social care took the position that in this situation he - rather than, say, the medical profession or the public - should ultimately decide who should live and who should die.

"Fortunately this horrible dilemma never crystallised."

Giving oral evidence to the inquiry, Lord Stevens added: "I certainly wanted to discourage the idea that an individual secretary of state, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, should be deciding how care would be provided.

Matt Hancock wanted to 'ultimately decide who should live and who should die,' if the NHS was overwhelmed the Covid inquiry heard
Matt Hancock wanted to 'ultimately decide who should live and who should die,' if the NHS was overwhelmed the Covid inquiry heard. Picture: Alamy

"I felt that we are well served by the medical profession, in consultation with patients to the greatest extent possible, in making those kinds of decisions."

Yesterday Dominic Cummings claimed Boris Johnson may have wanted to keep Matt Hancock in post as health secretary as a "sacrifice" for the Covid-19 inquiry.

The former top Downing Street adviser describes such a suggestion as "unforgivable", which came in his 115-page witness statement to Lady Hallett's probe published on Tuesday.

Read more: 'Let the elderly accept their fate': Boris Johnson's view of Covid emerges as toxic government infighting revealed

Mr Hancock was a frequent target of criticism by Mr Cummings during the pandemic, with Mr Cummings claiming that the then-Cabinet minister "killed people" during the crisis.

In his witness statement, Mr Cummings said that Mr Johnson declined to replace Mr Hancock in the summer of 2020 despite repeated requests.

Lord Simon Stevens said ‘fortunately this horrible dilemma never crystallised’
Lord Simon Stevens said ‘fortunately this horrible dilemma never crystallised’. Picture: Alamy

He said that Mr Johnson's political secretary - Ben Gascoigne and now a member of the House of Lords - had told him "that the PM wanted to keep Hancock as 'the sacrifice for the inquiry'.

In my opinion this was one of his very worst and most unforgivable decisions. The PM knew and expressed often in the summer not just what a terrible job Hancock had done but how dishonest he was.

"If we'd replaced Hancock before August then things like rapid testing would have been smoother, planning would have been more honest and effective, and thousands would have survived."

Mr Cummings does not say when the conversation between him and Lord Gascoigne took place.

Covid ITU doctor believes Boris Johnson should be prosecuted for decisions made during the pandemic

WhatsApp messages shared with the inquiry also showed Mr Cummings' repeated frustrations with Mr Hancock, with him ultimately pressuring the PM to sack the then-Cabinet minister.

In one message sent in May 2020, Mr Cummings wrote to the then-prime minister: "You need to think through timing of binning Hancock. There's no way the guy can stay. He's lied his way through this and killed people and dozens and dozens of people have seen it.

"He will have to go the question is when and who replaces."

In another message in August 2020, he said: "I also must stress I think leaving Hancock in post is a big mistake - he is a proven liar who nobody believes or shd (sic) believe on anything, and we face going into autumn crisis with the c*** in charge of NHS still."

Mr Cummings also told Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel to the inquiry, that Mr Hancock had "sowed chaos" by continuing to insist in March 2020 that people without symptoms of a dry cough and a temperature were unlikely to be suffering from coronavirus.

Mr Keith asked whether it was understood at that stage that there was in fact asymptomatic transmission.

"It was and Mr Hancock had made this point in multiple ways and sowed chaos by saying this," Mr Cummings told the hearing.

"He was repeatedly told by Patrick Vallance that what he was saying was wrong. But he kept saying it.

"So this false meme lodged itself in crucial people's minds. I don't understand, never understood why Hancock said this. But Patrick Vallance made extremely clear to me and to others in No 10 that what Hancock was saying was factually wrong."

Mr Hancock - who was health secretary from July 2018 to June 2021 - played a key role in the handling of the pandemic.

But critics have questioned his record on Covid testing, nursing homes and other crucial issues from the period.

Also known for his appearance last year on TV's I'm A Celebrity, his political career was torpedoed after footage emerged in 2021 of his embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo.

He has since lost the Tory whip after agreeing to appear on the reality TV show and will stand down at the next general election.

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