Covid inquiry: Toxic culture damaged response, says Matt Hancock

1 hour ago
About sharing

Watch: Matt Hancock told the Covid inquiry that “Cummings caused toxic culture”

By Kate Whannel
Political reporter

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has denied lying to colleagues during the pandemic and criticised a “toxic culture” in government.

Addressing the Covid inquiry, Mr Hancock called Dominic Cummings, one of his harshest critics, a “malign actor”.

He also said he had to “wake up Whitehall” to the Covid threat and that a lockdown should have been enacted three weeks earlier than it was.

During the inquiry, Mr Hancock has been accused of being untruthful.

Helen MacNamara, a senior civil servant during the pandemic, said he would say things that would turn out not to be the case.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser, said Mr Hancock had “a habit of saying things which he didn’t have a basis for”.

In his evidence, Mr Hancock said there was no “evidence whatsoever” that he lied during the pandemic.

The Mid-Suffolk MP was health secretary between 2018 until June 2021 when he was forced to resign after breaching Covid guidance.

He was suspended as a Conservative MP, after appearing on ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” in 2022 and later said he would not stand for re-election as an MP.

More on Covid and the Covid Inquiry

In the session, the inquiry was shown extracts from Sir Patrick’s diary which described a “massive internal mess” inside the health department and reported that then-civil service head Sir Mark Sedwill complained of the department’s “clear lack of grip”.

However, Mr Hancock robustly defended his role in the pandemic and that of the health department that he led.

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

He argued it was having to do to work of other departments, for example on school closures.

“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”.

He added there was an “unhelpful” assumption that “when anything was difficult or a challenge, therefore there was somehow fault and blame”.

He also referred to “a lack of generosity or empathy and understanding the difficulty of rising to such a big challenge”.

‘Toxic culture at the centre’ during pandemic, says Hancock

Mr Cummings – who left No 10 in December 2020 after falling out with then Prime Minister Boris Johnson – has been fiercely critical of Mr Hancock.

Offered a chance to respond, Mr Hancock blamed Mr Cummings for creating a bad atmosphere and described him as a “malign actor” who fostered a “culture of fear”.

‘Greatest regret’

Mr Hancock was also questioned about apparently contradictory evidence on when the government knew people without symptoms could transmit the virus.

Referring to a report by the US’s Centre for Disease Control, he said there was not clear evidence until the beginning of April and up to then he had been advised not to base policy on the assumption that transmission could be asymptomatic.

Mr Hancock said it was his “single greatest regret with hindsight” that he didn’t overrule the advice.

“I was in the pro-let’s worry about asymptomatic transmission camp. The frustration was that, understandably from their point of view, and here I’m putting myself in their shoes, the Public Health England scientists said we have not got concrete evidence.”

The inquiry was shown messages between Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick in which they suggest the government had known about asymptomatic transmission.

Posting on X as the inquiry was going on, Mr Cummings said Mr Hancock was “talking rubbish”.

‘Not adequate’

Mr Hancock was also pushed on when he advised Mr Johnson that immediate action would be needed to contained the virus.

The former health secretary said he raised the alarm bell on 13 March.

However, the inquiry’s lawyer, Sir Hugo Keith KC, questioned the statement noting that this was not mentioned in the entry for 13 March in Mr Hancock’s book, Pandemic Diaries.

Mr Hancock replied that the evidence only came to light after his diary was published and cited an email he sent the prime minister calling for a “suppression strategy”.

Sir Hugo argued that this did not amount to calling for an immediate lockdown.

Asked about the existence of pre-prepared plans for a pandemic, Mr Hancock said they existed but repeated his previous assertion that they were not “adequate”.

Mr Johnson will give evidence to the inquiry on 6 and 7 December. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is also expected to give evidence before the end of the year.

Related Topics

More on this story

27 June
22 hours ago
4 days ago