Matt Hancock faces second day of Covid Inquiry grilling

Rishi Sunak ‘wanted to close schools instead of shops in Autumn 2020’: Extraordinary details of Cabinet wrangling emerge at Covid Inquiry as Matt Hancock claims tougher measures could have avoided pupils being forced to stay at home at start of 2021

Rishi Sunak wanted to close schools instead of shops as Covid ran riot in Autumn 2020, it was claimed today.

The Covid Inquiry heard extraordinary details of Cabinet squabbling about how to handle a surge in cases as Matt Hancock gave a second day of evidence.

Messages between the former health secretary and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case included a reference to Mr Sunak thinking it was ‘better’ to introduce curbs in secondary schools, because there was no proof that non-essential retail boosted transmission.

The exchanges from October 2020 emerged as Mr Hancock told the inquiry that if restrictions had been tougher that Autumn with new variants circulating, the full lockdown including schools in January 2021 might have been avoided.

In other key moments today:

  • Mr Hancock was asked whether he accepted that it had damaged public confidence when CCTV images surfaced of him kissing aide Gina Coladangelo in his office – later sparking his resignation.

Messages between the former health secretary and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case included a reference to Mr Sunak thinking it was ‘better’ to introduce curbs in secondary schools, because there was no proof that non-essential retail boosted transmission

Other records of discussions show Mr Hancock pushing for tougher measures in Autumn 2020

Matt Hancock kicked off a second bruising day of evidence at the Covid inquiry today

Mr Sunak was Chancellor during the pandemic, responsible for keeping the economy afloat

Mr Hancock quit the Cabinet in June 2021 after it emerged he had been caught on CCTV kissing his aide in his office. 

He now sits as an independent MP after losing the party whip for appearing on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity reality TV show.

Answering questions from inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC, Mr Hancock said the rule of six and tiers, which were introduced to help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the autumn of 2020, ‘didn’t go far enough’.

The former health secretary told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry: ‘In September we introduced the rule of six – there was a debate about whether it should be a rule of eight or rule of six.

‘I’m glad that we introduced it as rule of six, but it didn’t go far enough.’

He added that the tiers proposal was first suggested in early September and was still not in place by October 9.

‘The top tier within the tiering system wasn’t strong enough,’ Mr Hancock said.

He added that, at the time, he had argued that the Government needed to ‘act now’ because ‘if we don’t lock down there will be more deaths and we will have to have a tougher lockdown in the future’.

Mr Hancock said that ‘on reflection and with hindsight’ he thought ‘if we’d have taken action sooner, in September of 2020, then we might, for instance, have avoided the need to close schools, which in the end we had to as cases were so high by January’.

He added: ‘In the November lockdown we didn’t shut schools, and other than the emergence of the Kent variant, it did get R below one.

‘So it shows the argument I was making then, sadly, turned out to be accurate, which is if you don’t lock down early, you have a tougher lockdown with more economic damage.’

The former health secretary is facing more questions at the probe after a gruelling session yesterday, in which he furiously denied lying to colleagues and attacked ‘malign’ Dominic Cummings.

He also conceded that the first national lockdown in March 2020 should have happened three weeks earlier, and admitted he did not personally read SAGE minutes on the emergence of the virus until sometime in February.

The ex-Cabinet minister is expected to be quizzed by lawyers representing bereaved families later. 

Mr Hancock’s appearance spearheads a blockbuster series of witnesses at the inquiry, with Boris Johnson due next week and Rishi Sunak expected before Christmas.  

After a slew of allegations that he misled colleagues about what his department was doing in the early stages of the pandemic, Mr Hancock yesterday flatly rejected the idea insisting there was no proof.

Protesters were outside the inquiry venue today as Mr Hancock continued his evidence

Matt Hancock arrived to kick off a second bruising day of evidence at the Covid inquiry today

He accused former No10 chief Mr Cummings of creating a ‘culture of fear’, saying there was a ‘lack of generosity or empathy in understanding the difficulty of responding to such a challenge’.

He said mechanisms must be put in place to stop ‘malign’ characters such as Mr Cummings derailing the response to crises in future.

However, Mr Hancock struggled as he was grilled on his claim that he first urged Boris Johnson to trigger a lockdown on March 13, 2020. 

Inquiry counsel Hugo Keith pointed out that was not included in the ex-minister’s Pandemic Diaries memoir, and there was no written evidence to support it.

Mr Hancock highlighted an email to the PM from that day where he urged a ‘suppression strategy’. But Mr Keith shot back: ‘Did you use the words ”immediate” or ”lockdown”?’

The exchange drew a fresh allegation from Mr Cummings, who posted on the X social media site that Mr Hancock was ‘flat out lying’ about when he supported a lockdown. The PM eventually announced the move on March 23, and it took legal effect on March 26 – but is generally accepted to have been too late.

Mr Hancock also admitted that in the early stages of the pandemic he did not read the minutes from SAGE, instead relying on chief medical adviser Chris Whitty to fill him in on the discussions. It was only ‘some time in February’ 2020 that he asked for them to be included in his Red Box. 

Denying that planning had been non-existent, he insisted that ‘there were plans’ and some parts of the reaction by the Department of Health were ‘very strong’. 

But Mr Hancock acknowledged that preparations were ‘inadequate’ and the department needed to ‘tool up’, saying it was ‘blazingly obvious’ that DoH would have more work to do during a pandemic.

He said there were ‘inexplicable’ delays to the Cabinet Office signing off an action plan, and suggested colleagues had not ‘cottoned on’ to the scale of the Covid wave coming. 

Mr Hancock said that in retrospect the UK should have had the first lockdown on March 2, 2020, suggesting it could have saved lives.

‘With hindsight – Italy having locked down initially, locally in Lombardy on January 21, and then nationally locked down around also February 28 – if at that moment, having seen the Sage assumptions… if that that moment, we’d realised that it was definitely coming and the reasonable worst case scenario was as awful as it was, that is the moment that we should, with hindsight, have acted,’ he said.

As late as March 12, 2020, messages suggested Mr Hancock was arguing against locking down – although he claimed the next day he told the PM there should be a lockdown 

Mr Hancock was revealed to have been branded a ‘c***’ and a ‘proven liar who nobody believes’ in foul-mouthed WhatsApp messages sent by former No10 aide Dominic Cummings

‘And we had the doctrine that I proposed, which is as soon as you know you have got to lock down, you’re lock down as soon as possible, then we would have got the lockdown done over that weekend in on the second of March three weeks earlier than before. There’s a doubling rate at this point estimated every three to four days, we would have been six doublings ahead of where we were, which means that fewer than a tenth of the number of people would have died in the first wave

‘At the time, there was still enormous uncertainty, the number of cases was still very low, in fact, there were only 12 cases reported on March 1, and the costs of what I’m proposing were known and huge. So I defend the actions that were taken by the government at the time, knowing what we did, but with hindsight, that’s the moment should have done it, three weeks, and it would have been would have saved many, many lives

‘Having obviously thought about this and reflected on this a huge deal over the last few years, the first moment we realistically could have really cracked it was on March 2, three weeks earlier than we did.’

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