UK had 'no plan for lockdown' and would have even been underprepared for flu pandemic, Matt Hancock says

27 June 2023, 13:50 | Updated: 27 June 2023, 14:06

Matt Hancock said the UK wasn't prepared for lockdowns
Matt Hancock said the UK wasn't prepared for lockdowns. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

The UK had no plan for a lockdown and would have been underprepared even if the country had been hit by a flu pandemic Matt Hancock has told the inquiry into the UK's Covid-19 response.

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Mr Hancock, who was Health Secretary through much of the worst of the Covid pandemic, until June 2021, said that the government hadn't done enough to prepare.

He told the inquiry on Tuesday: "It is central to what we must learn as a country that we've got to be ready to hit a pandemic hard: that we've got to be able to take action - lockdown action if necessary, that is wider, earlier, more stringent than feels comfortable at the time.

"And the failure to plan for that was a much bigger flaw in the strategy than the fact that it was targeted at the wrong disease."

Mr Hancock added: "The doctrinal flaw was the biggest by a long way because if we'd had a flu pandemic, we still would have had the problem of no plan in place for lockdown, no prep for how to do one, no work on what, how best to lock down with the least damage.

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Matt Hancock arriving at the inquiry on Tuesday
Matt Hancock arriving at the inquiry on Tuesday. Picture: Getty

"I understand deeply the consequences of lockdown and the negative consequences for many, many people - many of which persist to this day."

Mr Hancock also apologised for the impact the pandemic had on the UK.

"I am profoundly sorry for the impact that it had, I’m profoundly sorry for each death that has occurred," he said.

He added: "And I also understand why, for some, it will be hard to take that apology from me. I understand that, I get it. But it is honest and heartfelt, and I’m not very good at talking about my emotions and how I feel.

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Mel Stride will join Nick Ferrari for Call the Cabinet on Wednesday
Mel Stride will join Nick Ferrari for Call the Cabinet on Wednesday. Picture: LBC

"But that is honest and true. And all I can do is ensure that this inquiry gets to the bottom of it, and that for the future, we learn the right lessons, so that we stop a pandemic in its tracks much, much earlier.

"And that we have the systems in place ready to do that, because I’m worried that they’re being dismantled as we speak."

Mr Hancock said that the UK and other western countries were "hampered" by the assumption that they wouldn't be able to stop the pandemic.

He said: "The central failing that hampered the UK's response common with the rest of the western world, was the refusal and the explicit decision that it would not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic, that is wrong and that is at the centre of the failure of preparation.

The UK was underprepared for lockdown, Matt Hancock said
The UK was underprepared for lockdown, Matt Hancock said. Picture: Getty

"I know that because I was the person responsible, as the category one responder, when this pandemic struck, and all of the other considerations are, are small, important but small compared to the colossal scale of failure in the assumption that it will not be possible, and the lack of ambition, in the assumption that you can't stop the spread of a disease. We can."

He added: "Imagine if this disease had had tragically killed children as much as it did old people, and maybe it transmitted twice as easily as Covid? Would it then be possible to stop this, to hold the spread?

"Of course it would, we would do whatever it took, and that's where we got to, but it but we got there far, far too slowly, because none of the preparation included any thinking around that."

Members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice hold photos of relatives who died during the pandemic
Members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice hold photos of relatives who died during the pandemic. Picture: Getty

It comes after bereaved relatives of people who died of Covid-19 confronted Matt Hancock as he arrived to face questions.

Members of the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice stood at the steps of the inquiry at Dorland House in London as Mr Hancock made a quick arrival into the main entrance before being sworn in.

On the opening day of the inquiry, a written submission from Mr Hancock said: "In coming into the post as health secretary, I was advised that the UK was a world leader in preparations for the pandemic," it said.

"Whilst this may have been a heartfelt belief, it did not turn out to be the case when faced with what became known as Covid-19."

The families accused Mr Hancock of failing to protect their loved ones.Mr Hancock will become the latest high-profile politician to appear before the Covid-19 Inquiry, as hearings continue into Government preparedness for the pandemic.

Mr Hancock's attendance at the inquiry comes after chancellor Jeremy Hunt, another former health secretary, admitted that a "groupthink" helped lead to a "narrowness of thinking" that failed to expand pandemic preparedness beyond planning for a flu outbreak.

The Covid-19 enquiry began on June 13
The Covid-19 enquiry began on June 13. Picture: Getty

On Monday, former deputy chief medical officer Dame Jenny Harries was quizzed on the capacity of the UK health system as well as the organisational reforms before the Covid outbreak.

Mr Hancock, also known for his appearance last year on TV's I'm A Celebrity, became health secretary in mid-2018 - but his political career was torpedoed after footage emerged in 2021 of his embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo. He was central to the Government's pandemic era decision-making and messaging, with his own recollections of the period likely to be a crucial part of the inquiry.

A leak of more than a 100,000 of his WhatsApp messages by journalist Isabel Oakeshott to the Daily Telegraph, many of which were published earlier this year, provided a glimpse into the inner workings of Government during the period.

The West Suffolk MP, who will stand down at the next general election, has faced questions in the past about the Government policy on Covid testing and nursing homes.

Former prime minister David Cameron, former chancellor George Osborne and chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty are all among those who have appeared before the committee so far.