Matt Hancock says "culture of fear" in Government stifled pandemic response

Matt Hancock attempted to robustly defend his performance as Health Secretary during the pandemic yesterday, saying his efforts had been hampered by a “toxic culture” and a lack of “empathy” at the centre of Government.

Giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry, he pushed back on fierce criticism he has faced from a broad range of scientists, former political colleagues and civil servants in recent hearings.

These have included that he: lied; had “nuclear levels of overconfidence”; and that it was necessary to remove him to “save lives and protect the NHS”.

In what was at times a combative performance, he accused Dominic Cummings of creating a “culture of fear” in Government that undermined the pandemic response.

Screen grab from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Live Stream of former health secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence at Dorland House in LondonScreen grab from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Live Stream of former health secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence at Dorland House in London
Screen grab from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Live Stream of former health secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence at Dorland House in London

He painted Boris Johnson’s ex-chief adviser as a “malign actor” who subjected Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) staff to abuse as they grappled with the emergence of Covid-19.

Despite this, during the full day of questioning he repeatedly praised his handling of the pandemic.

He was also questioned about his now infamous remark that he had “thrown a protective ring” around care homes, despite knowing at that point that thousands of people had been discharged from hospitals into care homes early in the pandemic without being tested.

In what was perhaps the closest he came to contrition all day, he said he: “Understands the strength of feeling people have on the issue.”

He said he had been: “Trying to simply summarise that we had taken action”, including giving money to the care sector in March and April, providing PPE (personal protective equipment) and having infection control guidance in place.

Mr Hancock said: “I entirely understand why people feel strongly about this and when I first said that, I then went on to explain what I meant.”

The former I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here contestant, who is currently sitting as an independent MP, said he struggled to convince those at the heart of Government of the seriousness of the outbreak.

He said: “Getting the machine at the centre of government up and running was incredibly hard and took a huge amount of effort”.

“When it did finally get up and running at the end of February, then things started to move.”

Asked whether he had displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence, in the words of former civil servant Helen MacNamara, Mr Hancock told the inquiry that he had had “long discussions” with some advisers about “how we were responding”.

He said: “In a trusted environment we were self-critical about how we were responding, that’s only natural because we could see what was happening and we could see we were in the middle of something that hadn’t happened for decades and it was on our watch, so to speak.”

Inquiry counsel Hugo Keith cited “repeated references” heard by the probe that Mr Hancock was “desperate to own and lead” in February and March 2020 and he “kept too much in the DHSC”.

In response, Mr Hancock said: I’ve heard these accusations that we (DHSC) tried to do too much.

“On the contrary, there was so much that needed to be done, and in some cases we just had to get on and do it.

"It would have been far better if instead of thinking that we were overreacting – as the Cobra machine clearly thought we were – if they had embraced the challenges, and it would have been led from the centre.”

Mr Hancock’s evidence will continue this morning, and is expected to last until around lunchtime.

It was also announced yesterday that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson would be appearing in front of the Committee next week.

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