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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andrew Sparrow

Matt Hancock ‘was not told about eat out to help out scheme until day it was announced’ – as it happened

Q: Did you back calls for a circuit breaker lockdown in September 2020?

Hancock says he favoured tougher measures at the time. But he was not in favour of the circuit breaker plan.

Repeat circuit breakers would have undermined public confidence, he says.

Covid rates would just have shot up afterwards. That is what happened in Wales, he says.

Q: Why did you not back the scientists?

Hancock says at that point the scientists were not unanimous.

Q: Sage called for a circuit breaker on 17 September.

Hancock says the chief medical officer’s view at the time was “subtly different”.

Circuit breakers would not have worked in practice, he says.

Q: On 17 September you could not have known the Welsh lockdown did not work, because it had not been tried. Weren’t you meant to be following the science?

No, says Hancock. He says guided by the science, which was different.

And that’s the end of the hearing for the day.

Keith shows the inquiry text messages between Hancock and Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, from August 2020 showing that the Treasury and No 10 were warned at the time that the eat out to help out scheme was pushing up Covid cases.

Hancock defends not saying this publicly, saying he abided by collective responsibility.

Messages between Hancock and Case.
Messages between Hancock and Case. Photograph: Covid inquiry


Hancock says he was not told about eat out to help out scheme until day it was announced

Hancock says he did not know about the eat out to help out scheme until the cabinet meeting on the day it was announced.

Q: If you had been told about it in advance, what would you have said?

I don’t know, Hancock says.

Q: But as secretary of state you were plainly on the side of caution.

Hancock says it was important, overall, to ensure there was not too much opening up.

What mattered in the opening then was that there wasn’t overall too much. And in the end, there was overall too much. Which individual items you have opening, you did or didn’t do, is second order compared to the overall amount of openings.

But he says at the time he was also trying to get funding to help people who tested positive to isolate.

(Hancock seems to be implying that he had a reason not to pick a fight with the Treasury, but he does not say that explicitly.)

Q: Did you express reservations about it?

Hancock says he argued against it being extended. And it was not extended.

He says the government had an R budget, and it could introduce various measures as long as collectively they did not push R above one.

He repeats the point about wanting money from the Treasury, this time saying explicity that he was motivated by the desire to keep the chancellor on side.

UPDATE: Hancock said:

In intervention areas, it was unhelpful to be that the state should be subsidising people to go out at the same time as asking people to be more cautious.

But what I’d say is that I think there has been undue focus on this one item.

And where the then chancellor is absolutely right in his statement, is he argues that this was not the sole cause of the second wave …

In the end that loosening was too much. Eat out to help out was just one of many measures.


Hancock's media adviser questioned his claim goverment had 'locked down care homes before rest of country', inquiry told

Keith showed the inquiry an exchange of messages showing that on 13 May 2020 Hancock’s media adviser, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, told Hancock he was concerned that there was little evidence to justify Hancock telling Boris Johnson the government had “locked down care homes before the rest of the country”.

Hancock’s exchanges with advisers
Hancock’s exchanges with advisers Photograph: Covid inquiry


Hancock accepts comment about throwing 'protective ring' about care homes gave wrong impression

Keith says on 15 May Hancock said at a No 10 press conference:

Right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.

Q: Do you accept that that was open to misinterpretation, and that that implied protections were in place at the start?

Hancock says he understands “why people feel strongly about this”. At the press conference he went on to explain what he meant. He had listed measures being taken by the government.

He was trying to summarise the measures being taken.

Q: Prof Van-Tam says a ring is a circle without a break? But the measures were not an unbroken circle of protection.

Hancock says Van-Tam is right.


Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill thought Hancock hit testing target via 'creative counting', inquiry hears

Keith shows Hancock a message he got from Mark Sedwill on 1 May 2020 congratulating him on meeting his target to get testing up to 100,000 tests per day. It was widely said that Hancock only met this target by fiddling the methodology, and Sedwill seems to acknowledge this, congratulating Hancock on “creative counting”.

Message from Sedwill
Message from Sedwill. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Asked if he was engaged in creative counting, Hancock rejects that. He says he achieved the target on every possible measure.


Hancock says there's 'spectacular imbalance' between spending to counter military threats and health threats

Hancock says the government spends £50bn on defence. But it spends less than £500m on the UK Health Security Agency. That is less than 1% of spending going on health security.

Yet health security failings have killed more civilians than terrorism has, he says. He says that is a “spectacular imbalance”.

And he says the head of UKHSA should sit in on the national security council the whole time, instead of just when health topics are being discussed.

Referring to what he said earlier about initially being refused permission to hold a Cobra meeting in January (see 12.36am), he says that if he had gone to the cabinet secretary and said there was a 50/50 chance of a terror attack killing 100,000 people, there would have been a Cobra meeting – and the PM would have chaired it.


Keith asks about Public Health England.

Hancock says its scientific work was superb. At one point it was doing half the genomic sequencing in the world.

But it did not have the capacity to scale up, he says.

And he says it did not want to engage with private companies able to help expand testing capacity.


Back at the Covid inquiry, Hugo Keith KC shows Hancock a paper with referenes to what was said at Sage at various points about what damage might be done to the NHS by a pandemic. Here is one entry.

Advice from Sage
Advice from Sage Photograph: Covid inquiry

Q: Did the government have a view as to when the NHS would be overwhelmed?

Hancock says no one fully knew what that would look like, “but we knew it would be catastrophic”.

This would mean people going without treatment, Hancock says. And he says he was determined that would not happen.

He says the crisis point would depend on various factors, like staffing ratios. In intensive care it is normally one member of staff to one patient. During Covid, at some points that went up to one to six patients.

The NHS would have survived, he says.

But he says, if it had been overwhelmed, it would not have been able to offer care to everyone.


Rishi Sunak speaking to students at the University of Surrey in Guildford this morning.
Rishi Sunak speaking to students at the University of Surrey in Guildford this morning. Photograph: Reuters

Alba party calls for referendum on giving Scottish parliament power to negotiate independence

In a move that appears as much designed to further annoy the SNP government as advance the cause of independence, Alex Salmond’s Alba party is proposing a referendum on whether the powers of the Scottish parliament should be extended to include the power to legislate for and negotiate independence.

The former SNP leadership candidate Ash Regan, who defected to Alba last month, told a press conference this morning that she would introduce a member’s bill to consult the people of Scotland 10 years on from the 2014 independence referendum.

But Regan admitted that she had not yet spoken to any fellow MSPs about her plan – a member’s bill needs 18 proposers from three parties – but said she saw “no reason” why the Scottish government wouldn’t back it. She did this while sitting alongside the Alba leader, Alex Salmond, who last week launched a multi-million pound damages claim against the very same Scottish government.

Regan also noted that the parliament’s non-government bills department is already “at capacity”.

Salmond boasted that “hardly a day goes by” when he doesn’t speak to SNP parliamentarians, but would not name any SNP MSPs he thought likely to support the bill.

Salmond also revealed that the proposed bill had been his plan B in 2012 in the event of David Cameron refusing an independence referendum.

Both Salmond and Regan insisted their plan, which includes a “consultation” with the wider independence movement, would break the constitutional logjam around a route to another referendum.

At SNP conference in October, the party leader and first minister Humza Yousaf urged members to stop talking about process and convince voters how independence was relevant to the cost of living crisis. The party also agreed that if the SNP wins a majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats at the general election, it will have the mandate to negotiate independence with the UK government.


The Covid inquiry has stopped for a 10-minute break.

Q: Why did the government not wait to see what impact the “stay at home” order on 16 March, and subsequent measures, had before ordering the full, “politically divisive” lockdown on 23 March?

Hancock says the lockdown was not divisive at the time.

First, Covid was growing exponentially. As a trained economist, he is used to dealing with exponential curves, he says.

(That seems to be a reference to Sir Patrick Vallance telling the inquiry that many politicians did not understand exponential graphs.)

And Hancock says the evidence at that point implied the measures in place were not getting R, the reproduction number, below 1.


Keith shows the inquiry an extract from Hancock’s witness statement in which Hancock explains why he thinks lockdown should have started much earlier.

Extract from Hancock's witness statement
Extract from Hancock's witness statement Photograph: Covid inquiry

Hancock defends saying increasing testing and contact tracing 'in hand' on 14 March 2020

Keith shows Hancock an exchange of messages on 14 March 2020 where Hancock says they need to ramp up contact tracing, and scale up testing. He says both measures are “in hand”.

Exchanges on 14 March 2020
Exchanges on 14 March 2020 Photograph: Covid inquiry

But, Keith says, testing had stopped, and there was no contact tracing.

Q: Why did you say they were in hand?

Hancock says he had issued instructions to reverse both those measures.

On testing, the problem was the shortage of tests. He subsequently took responsibility for testing back from Public Health England into DHSC, and he escalated it.

And he says PHE had stopped contact tracing. Hancock says he arranged for it to resume, on a large scale. And self-contact tracing was introduced, which became the app.

He says this is what the reference to these measures being “in hand” is about. Both became big programmes.

Lady Hallett, the chair, asks if these measures were actually “in hand” on 14 March.

Hancock says he meant he was making them happen.


Hancock recalls a meeting with his Italian counterpart, Roberto Speranzain, in early March. He says that had a big impact on him, because in the UK they assumed the Italians had launched lockdown-type measures early. But the Italian health minister said he thought they should have acted earlier.

UPDATE: Hancock said:

We thought the Italians had acted early, but he was saying he wished he’d acted earlier this.

And this argument that you should delay and time it right, he had no truck with.

And so that had a very significant impact on me. And that was the point at which I started actively agitating for very firm action, for a lockdown.

I spoke to the prime minister, I emailed him that evening.


Keith refers to the debate about the concern that, if the virus was suppressed completely, it would bounce back later in the year.

Q: To what extent did this slow down making policy?

Very little, says Hancock. He says they rapidly decided it was best to suppress the virus.

Hancock says lockdown decision held up for about two weeks by concern people would get tired of complying

Hancock repeats his claim that he told Boris Johnson in a call on Friday 13 March he should order a lockdown.

Keith asks if Hancock has a record of this not disclosed to the inquiry.

Hancock says he doesn’t have that, only a record that a call took place.

But he says he knows what he said in that call.

UPDATE: Hancock said that around the weekend of 1 March the debate within government changed from whether lockdown-type measures were needed, to when they would be introduced.

But for about two weeks the government took the view that it would be a mistake to lock down too early, because people would tire of complying, he said.

There was then, from that period, that weekend [1 March], the discussion was then when to go, not whether to go. So it switched from whether to go to when to go, and we held fire because we didn’t know how long the public would put up with measures for and that was the clear, scientific advice. And, on this, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty were completely united. I don’t recall any distinction between their views during this period.

Hancock said on 13 March “we effectively came to a different view” and referred to telling Johnson that day to order a lockdown. (See 11am.)

Keith said:

You know perfectly well that we have scoured every possible source for documents and material relevant to the issues in this inquiry, are you saying that you have a record of a phone call, which you’ve not disclosed to this inquiry?

Hancock replied: “No, there’s only a record that the phone call took place.”

Keith put it to him: “So you don’t know what you said in that phone call.” But Hancock replied: “I do.”


Hancock says, with hindsight, lockdown should have started on 2 March 2020, cutting death toll in first wave by 90%

Hancock says, with hindsight, the government should have acted on 28 February.

He says, if they had taken a decision on Friday 28 February, they could have introduced a lockdown on Monday 2 March.

That was three weeks earlier than when it was introduced, he says.

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.

Hancock says the costs of this approach were “known and huge”. So he defends the action that the government took.

But with hindsight, that’s the moment we should have done it, three weeks earlier, and it would have saved many, many lives.

UPDATE: Hancock said:

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 at 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.

And we had the doctrine that I proposed, which is as soon as you know you have got to lock down, you 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 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.


Hancock says 28 February 2020 was an important day.

The night before he learned Covid had a 1% fatality rate.

At that point he was still being banned from talking to the media about Covid. He wanted to go on the Today programme.

On 28 February he spoke to Boris Johnson. He told Johnson he should chair a Cobra that day. In the end it took place the following Monday, 2 March.

He also says that he said at that point the government should lift its boycott of the Today programme. (At that point No 10 was not putting ministers on the Today programme, because Dominic Cummings objected to the programme.)

He says he regards 28 February as the moment when the centre of government fully grasped the scale of the problem.


Hancock says he started receiving Sage minutes in mid-February.

He says he now thinks he should have attended their meetings himself so he could hear what was being said.

Q: So you were not getting the minutes from the body in charge of giving scientific advice on public health?

Hancock says Sage was not the only body giving scientific advice. He says it was an important body, but says it would be wrong to “fetishise it”.


Keith asks which department was in charge of infection control.

Hancock says the Cabinet Office was in charge of infection control across the population as a whole.

Hugo Keith KC asks how Matt Hancock felt when he was told on 13 February 2020 that Sage had concluded China would not contain Covid.

Hancock says Sage came to that view on 13 February. He says he does not recall when he was told about that.

Keith says at a cabinet meeting on 14 February Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said there were plans in place to slow down the virus.

Minutes of meeting
Minutes of cabinet meeting. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Q: What plans were in place for infection control?

Hancock says the plans were based on the 2011 strategy that was in place.


The Covid inquiry has resumed.

Graeme Wearden has more tributes to Alistair Darling on his business live blog.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have both paid tribute to Alistair Darling.

Blair said:

Alistair Darling was a rarity in politics.

I never met anyone who didn’t like him. He was highly capable, though modest, understated but never to be underestimated, always kind and dignified even under the intense pressure politics can generate.

He was the safest of safe hands. I knew he could be given any position in the cabinet and be depended upon. I liked him and respected him immensely as a colleague and as a friend.

In all the jobs he did for me in government – chief secretary, work and pensions, transport, trade and industry and of course as secretary of state for Scotland, he was outstanding.

He could take tough decisions on spending when he needed to, but as he did with Crossrail, when convinced of a project’s importance, he would be equally tough in supporting it.

I remember him with huge affection. He has been taken from us far too soon. My deepest condolences to Maggie, to Calum and Anna.

And Brown said:

Alistair will be remembered as a statesman of unimpeachable integrity whose life was defined by a strong sense of social justice and who gained a global reputation for the assured competence and the exercise of considered judgment he brought to the handling of economic affairs.

He was held in the highest esteem by me and all who worked with him for the way in which he handled the fall of the major banks and negotiated international agreements with fellow finance ministers. I, like many, relied on his wisdom, calmness in a crisis and his humour.

Alistair’s family were central to everything he did. I send my deepest condolences to his loving wife Maggie and their children Calum and Anna. He will be missed by all who knew and respected him and benefited from the great work he did.

Politicians from across political spectrum pay tribute to Alistair Darling

Many people in politics are paying tribute to Alistair Darling now, and I won’t try to post them all here. It is conventional, and good manners, to be complimentary about someone who has just died, but relatively few people in politics are as widely liked and respected as he was, and his death at the age of 70 has come as an absolute shock.

As a sign of how highly he was regarded, here are some of the things his political opponents have been saying about him.

From David Cameron, the Conservative foreign secretary and former prime minister:

Incredibly sad to hear that Alistair Darling has passed away.

Alistair was a thoroughly kind and decent man. Despite us representing opposing parties, I always valued his immense contribution and enjoyed working with him too. We owe him a huge debit of gratitude for chairing the Better Together campaign ahead of the [Scottish independence] referendum in 2014. He led the campaign with great distinction and tenacity, securing Scotland’s place in our Union.

He has left us far too early. My thoughts and prayers are with Maggie and his children, Calum and Anna.

From Theresa May, the former Conservative PM:

Sad to learn of the death of Alistair Darling, whom I will remember as a committed public servant, a proud Unionist and a calm, kind and decent man. He was an asset to our politics and our national life. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

From Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s former SNP first minister:

Very sad to hear the news of Alistair Darling’s untimely death. Though we were on opposing sides of the independence referendum – with the inevitable clashes that involved – I always found him to be a man of intellect and principle. He made a significant contribution to politics and public life. My condolences are with his loved ones.

From John Swinney, the former SNP deputy first minister:

Terribly sorry to hear this sad news of the untimely death of Alistair Darling. He held office in the incredibly difficult days of the financial crash and acted with skill and care. We always enjoyed friendly and courteous dialogue. I am so sorry for Maggie and her family.

From Rupert Harrison, chief of staff to George Osborne when Osborne was chancellor:

Incredibly sad news. When we arrived in the Treasury in 2010 it was clear that Alistair Darling had inspired deep affection and loyalty from all of his officials. He also treated us gracefully and politely during the transition. A big loss to our public life.

How should we all behave in political life?

Check out the astonishing universal response on here to the sad news of Alistair Darling’s death.

And then try to #belikeAlistair

From John McDonnell, the leftwing former shadow chancellor on the opposite side of Labour politics to Darling:

So sorry to hear that Alistair Darling has died. We may have at times differed on economic strategy but he was always generous of spirit & I enjoyed his quick wit in even the most challenging of times. I send my condolences and deepest sympathy to his family and friends.


Simon Stevens, the former head of NHS England, told the Covid inquiry earlier this month that Matt Hancock thought that, if decisions had to be taken about which patients should be prioritised in the event of the NHS being overwhelmed, that should be a decision for ministers (ie him), not doctors.

Asked about this during the hearing this morning, Hancock rejected this claim. He said:

The minutes [from Nimbus, a planning exercise in 2020] do show that the NHS asked the question of how to prioritise when there is insufficient NHS capacity and there was a debate around that, as you can see in the minutes, and then I concluded that it should be for clinicians, not for ministers, to make a decision on this basis and that’s how we went on and proceeded. The minutes are really clear on that and that’s also my clear recollection.

Hancock also said that the “really important” lesson of Exercise Nimbus had been that “there was no way we could allow the NHS to become overwhelmed”.


Starmer pays tribute to Darling, saying his 'calm expertise and honesty' helped UK through financial crisis

Keir Starmer has paid tribute to Alistair Darling. The Labour leader said:

I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Alistair Darling. My heart goes out to his family, particularly Maggie, Calum and Anna, whom he loved so dearly.

Alistair lived a life devoted to public service. He will be remembered as the chancellor whose calm expertise and honesty helped to guide Britain through the tumult of the global financial crisis.

He was a lifelong advocate for Scotland and the Scottish people and his greatest professional pride came from representing his constituents in Edinburgh.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have benefited from Alistair’s counsel and friendship. He was always at hand to provide advice built on his decades of experience – always with his trademark wry, good humour.

Alistair will be missed by all those whose lives he touched. His loss to the Labour party, his friends and his family is immeasurable.


Newly homeless families now outnumber newly built social homes by six to one, according to official figures for England released this morning that expose the widening gap between increasing need and the availability of cheap homes. Robert Booth has the story.

Former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling has died, aged 70, his family says

Alistair Darling’s family issued a statement saying:

The death of Alistair Darling, a former chancellor of the exchequer and long-serving member of the Labour cabinet, was announced in Edinburgh today.

Mr Darling, the much-loved husband of Margaret and beloved father of Calum and Anna, died after a short spell in Western General hospital under the wonderful care of the cancer team.

Alistair Darling on the day of the March 2010 budget
Alistair Darling on the day of the March 2010 budget. Photograph: Kevin Coombs/Reuters


The Covid inquiry has now stopped for lunch. The hearing will resume at 1.45pm.

Turning away from the Covid inquiry, Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor, has died, PA Media reports.


Dominic Cummings has tweeted again about Hancock’s evidence. He claims Hancock is wrong about asymptomatic transmission. (See 11.45am.) For once, he is not accusing Hancock of lying; he just claims Hancock is “confused”.

Hancock talking rubbish on asymptomatic

1/ it’s in the whatsapp group 11/3 Hancock claiming tests don’t work on asymptomatic & Vallance telling him ‘wrong’ tests DO work - Hancock kept repeating this false idea (badly confusing the PM on the issue & he repeated the misinformation to Cabinet, cf. minutes)

2/ me saying 19/3 we shd do a *large scale random national survey* precisely cos it was crucial to figure out *the asymptomatic rate*, which wd help the whole world not just the UK - Vallance agreed with this idea & we did it with ONS

3/ NERVTAG in JANUARY. If he’d read the report (his job) he’d have known then

Hancock, Trolley, & Sedwill statements to inquiry show they STILL do not understand their own misconceptions on this subject in Q1-Q2 2020 (I think here Hancock was genuinely confused / rubbish, not lying)

Keith asks why ministers were told there was a 10% chance of the reasonable worst-case scenario happening when they were also told there was a 50% chance of Covid escaping China.

Hancock says that 10% chance was a consequence of two things – the 50% chance of Covid getting out of China, and how it would then develop. He says when Sars spread, the reasonable worst-case scenario did not materialise.

Q: Why was the reasonable worst-case scenario still be debated in early March long after it became clear the virus was coming, and measures needed to be taken to stop it?

Hancock says that is not how he remembers it.

The government decided to take the reasonable worst-case scenario as the planning assumption, he says.


Hancock says he wanted to call a Cobra meeting in January, but at first No 10 would not allow that. He says he also wanted to make a statement to parliament at this point, but No 10 said no.

Relatives of Covid victims outside the Covid inquiry hearing this morning.
Relatives of Covid victims outside the Covid inquiry hearing this morning. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters


Hancock says Cummings created 'culture of fear' in No 10 which undermined effectiveness of Covid response

Q: Do you think Cummings had too much influence on decision making in No 10?

Yes, says Hancock.

He says in February Cobra was meeting to deal with Covid.

But Cummings decided to circumvent these meeting by arranging for the key decisions to be taken at a different meeting taking place in his office, he says. He says some of the right people were at those meetings, but not all of them.

Q: Do you think Cummings’ role had a significant impact on the smooth running of the government machine?

“Yes, of course,” says Hancock.

Q: How was this allowed to continue?

Hancock says this was “deeply, deeply frustrating”.

There was a structural problem – Cummings trying to take control of the meetings.

But there was also a cultural problem, he says. He suggests Cummings created a culture of fear. He says Cummings effectively got Sajid Javid sacked as chancellor in February.

Keith tries to close down this point, saying it is not relevant.

Hancock insists this is relevant. He explains:

It inculcated a culture of fear, whereas what we needed was a culture where everybody was brought to the table and given their heads to do their level best in a once-in-a-generation crisis. The way to lead in a crisis like this is to give people the confidence to do what they think needs to happen. And it caused the opposite of that.

UPDATE: Hancock said:

As the Cobra system was running in February, the prime minister’s chief adviser decided that he didn’t like the Cobra system – that’s on the record – and he decided instead to take all of the major daily decisions into his office and he invited a subset of the people who needed to be there to these meetings.

He didn’t invite any ministers. He didn’t regard ministers as a valuable contribution to any decision-making as far as I could see in the crisis or, indeed, any other time.

The reason these meetings are important is because there is a proper government emergency response system and it was actively circumvented and in one of these early meetings the chief adviser said decisions don’t need to go to the prime minister.

Now that is inappropriate in a democracy. I saw it simply as essentially a power-grab but it definitely got in the way of organising the response for the period it was in operation.


Hancock denies being liar and says Cummings to blame for 'toxic culture' in No 10

Keith asks why people like Dominic Cummings thought Hancock was a liar?

“I was not,” says Hancock. He says no one in his department has supported these false allegations.

And people did not say this to him at the time, he says.

Keith says the inquiry has no interest in the allegation that Johnson considered sacking Hancock, because it will not be possible to get to the truth of what happened.

Hancock says the inquiry could get to the truth of this matter if it wanted to.

He says the “toxic culture” in No 10 was essentially caused by Cummings.

He describes Cummings as a “malign actor”.

He says Cummings made the situation unpleasant, and he made things unpleasant for his (Hancock’s) staff too.

But he just got on with things, he says.


Keith shows the inquiry minutes from a cabinet meeting on 11 March 2020 showing Matt Hancock as saying testing people who were asymptomatic would not work.

Extract from cabinet minutes
Extract from cabinet minutes Photograph: Covid inquiry

Hancock says he was talking at this point about the case for testing people as borders. Testing would not work because it would not pick up all cases, he suggests.

He says this is not the same as saying testing asymptomatic people might have value in other circumstances.

Dominic Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser for most of 2020, and who has been one of Hancock’s strongest critics, claims Hancock if lying to the inquiry about calling for a lockdown on Friday 13 2020. (See 11am.) He has put this on X.

Hancock flat out lying to Inquiry claiming he privately pushed for lockdown on 13th with PM - but admits there’s no evidence for it - and again on 14th in mtngs - when evidence from ALL others & paper trail is that he was still pushing Plan A herd immunity 13-15th - and his Perm Sec was still pushing Plan A on 18/3 to Cabinet Secretary (email uncovered by media) - the reason I physically stopped him coming to the second mtng on 14/3 was cos he was arguing AGAINST a change of plan & bullshitting everybody about herd immunity & ‘best prepared in the world’ (see evidence from multiple witnesses)

Keith shows an exchange of messages between Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, and Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical adviser, in July 2020. In it, Vallance says he does not know why Boris Johnson and Hancock were claiming they were not told about asymptomatic transmission.

Exchange of messages between Vallance and Whitty in July 2020
Exchange of messages between Vallance and Whitty in July 2020. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Hancock says he and Johnson were not complaining about not being told about the possibility of asymptomatic transmission. They were complaining about the scientists not treating it as the norm. He says the messages in this exchange show the scientists were not certain.


Hancock says his 'single biggest regret' is not insisting on policy being based on assumption of asymptomatic transmission

Keith says he wants to talk about asymptomatic transmission.

He says Hancock says in his witness statement that his biggest regret was not pushing for asymptomatic transmission as being the baseline assumption.

He asks Hancock to confirm that he is saying he wishes he had been told about asymptomatic transmission earlier, when it really mattered.

Hancock confirms that.

Keith shows a document from 27 January 2020 says the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the time that he could not be sure asymptomatic transmission was not happening.

Minute from 27 January 2020
Minute from 27 January 2020. Photograph: Covid inquiry

He shows another minute from the following day quoting Whitty as saying there was credible evidence of asymptomatic transmission in Germany.

Government minute
Government minute. Photograph: Covid inquiry

He shows minutes from a Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) meeting in early February discussing asymptomatic transmission as a factor.

Sage minutes from early February 2020
Sage minutes from early February 2020. Photograph: Covid inquiry

And he shows another minute from a Sage meeting later in February. NF is Neil Ferguson and JE is John Edmunds; they are both epidemiologists.

Minute from Sage meeting from early February
Minute from Sage meeting from early February. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Hancock accepts this evidence. He says his “single biggest regret” is that he did not push harder on this issue.

He says the scientists worked on the assumption that the transmission mechanism was the same as it was for Sars. He says he now thinks he should have over-ruled the scientists, and said policy should be based on the assumption that Covid was transmitted asymptomatically.

UPDATE: PA Media reports:

Hancock said there was a “fog of uncertainty” about asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 that he found “deeply frustrating”.

He said: “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 PHE scientists said we have not got concrete evidence.”

Asked whether the government should have been aware of the possibility of asymptomatic transmission, he said he had “a significant amount of anecdotal evidence”, but “the scientific advice required, or formally advised, policy should be based on the assumption of no asymptomatic transmission” …

When asked what measures could have been introduced if the advice had been clearer, Hancock said: “It made a difference in terms of how infection prevention and control was done within health and care settings. That is very clear.”


The Covid hearing has resumed.

Matt Hancock asks if he can add something to an earlier answer.

He says there is an email from Hancock to the PM sent on 13 March proposing a suppression strategy. He says that is hard evidence showing he was pushing for a lockdown.

He says that came to light after his book.

Hugo Keith KC says the inquiry is aware of that email. He asks Hancock if he uses the word “immediate” or “lockdown” in that email.

Hancock says he does not have the email in front of him.

During the evidence to the Covid inquiry earlier Hugo Keith KC presented a WhatsApp message from Matt Hancock on 23 January 2020 in which he said the DHSC had “full plans up to and including pandemic levels regularly prepped and refreshed”.

Exchanges from Hancock
Exchanges from Hancock Photograph: Covid inquiry

Sunak claims he is 'not in hock to ideological zealots' over climate crisis

Rishi Sunak has claimed this morning he is “not in hock to ideological zealots” over the climate crisis.

In a pooled clip for broadcasters, ahead of the Cop28 climate summit that he is attending, Sunak defended his government’s approach to net zero. He said:

We are a world leader when it comes to climate, that’s what the stats show. We’ve reduced carbon emissions in this country faster than any other major economy.

Our targets for the next few years are also more ambitious than any other major economy and because of that, I thought the right thing to do was to ensure that we get to net zero in a pragmatic and proportionate way that saves working families thousands of pounds.

I’m not in hock to ideological zealots on this topic. Of course we’re going to get to net zero, of course it’s important, but we can do that in a sensible way that saves people money and doesn’t burden them with extra costs.

Rishi Sunak speaking to a reporters
Rishi Sunak speaking to a reporters at the University of Surrey in Guildford this morning. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AP


The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents about half the managed land in England and Wales, is holding a conference today, where Steve Barclay, the environment secretary, and Steve Reed, his Labour shadow, are for the first time making their pitches to rural businesses.

The new CLA president, Victoria Vyvyan, says the rural economy is being ignored by government and seemed unimpressed by Rishi Sunak’s announcement this week of a new national park. She told the landowners present:

Nobody – and this is not said lightly – who lives and works in the national landscape wants a new national park.

I think they need to radically review what constitutes an effective National Park Authority. I think they need to review how they fix its boundaries. And I think most of all, they need to consider how we can run dynamic 21st century businesses in a national park rather than condemning us to change beds and sell tea in Scotland, possibly with a penny and an occasional courtesy from the visitors. We want to be part of a dynamic economy.


The inquiry is pausing for a break until 11.20am.

No written evidence to support Hancock's claim he told Johnson on 13 March 2020 to order lockdown, inquiry hears

Hancock claims that on Friday 13 March, the day after he sent the “better prepared” message (see 10.52am) and after he had changed his mind about the seriousness of the situation, he told Johnson the government should lock down.

Keith points out that Hancock does not mention this in his book, Pandemic Diaries. He suggests that Hancock would have wanted to mention something this significant.

There is a whole page on how you woke up for the dawn flight to Belfast … there was from the prime ministerial meeting, prime ministerial papers, a video call and according to your book you said: ‘I called the prime minister and told him we’d have to do some very rapid back-pedalling on the issue of herd immunity, then rang Patrick who promised to do his best to repair the damage.’

Telling the prime minister of this country for the first time that he had to call an immediate lockdown is surely worthy of some recollection, is it not?

Hancock claims that, when writing the book, he did not have full access to his papers. He says this fact come to light when he was researching his papers ahead of this inquiry.

Keith says Hancock says in Pandemic Diaries that the account it contains has been “meticulously pieced together” from formal papers, notes and WhatsApp messages. And he says the inquiry has seen no evidence that Hancock did tell Johnson on 13 March there should be a lockdown.

He asks Hancock if he is sure that that is what he told Johnson.

Hancock replies: “I can remember it.”

He says the evidence came to light when he was preparing for the inquiry.


Hancock claimed UK 'better prepared than other countries' for Covid on 12 March 2020, inquiry hears

Keith shows a WhatsApp message from Hancock to Dominic Cummings on 12 March 2020 in which Hancock said the UK was “better prepared than other countries”.

WhatsApp message from Hancock on 12 March 2020
WhatsApp message from Hancock on 12 March 2020. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Keith asks Hancock why he said that. Keith says:

By 12 March, you were surely aware that we were not better prepared than other countries. There was – you’ve acknowledged it already – no scaled up test trace isolate system, beyond the first few cases. There was no effective means of infection control. There was no border plans or quarantine system in place. You knew there was sustained community transmission in the United Kingdom by this date, and you knew that the infection fatality rate was 1% – 1% of all infected people would die. Why did you say we are better prepared than other countries?

Hancock says this was a message about communications.

But he also says that the following day, on Friday 13 March, he changed his view. He says his message came at a moment that was the “end of the road” for this approach.

UPDATE: PA Media reports:

Asked whether he had a responsibility to push harder to warn British citizens that a “wall of death” was coming, Hancock said: “In my public communications you will know that I had at that point been explaining that we might have to do that, yes. But I’m also a team player and the government position was ‘not yet.’”


Q: You must have known the government was failing to respond speedily and well.

Hancock says in many cases people had arguments for doing what they were doing.

There was also this “toxic culture”, he says. But that was more of a problem later.

He says people asked if he really wanted to tell people, early on, that it might be necessary to shut down whole cities. He did think that, he says.


Hancock dismisses claims he was over-confident, saying he had to keep system 'driving forward'

Helen MacNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary, said you showed “nuclear” levels of confidence, Keith says. Is that fair?

Hancock says he reacted in different ways with different people.

In trusted environments, he was self-critical, he says.

But he says he also had to drive the system forward.

And he says no one complained about him being over-confident at the time. He goes on:

I was going in and saying we absolutely must do this. And there was a huge amounts of uncertainty and a huge amount of worry. And I basically felt it was my professional duty to try to keep going through, to keep driving forward.

UPDATE: Hancock said:

There was a huge amount of uncertainty and a huge amount of worry and I basically felt it was my professional duty to try to keep going, to try to keep driving forward.”

Of course I understand now that some people reacted in the way that they did, but it was a time of enormous uncertainty and a time when I just felt we needed to keep driving this system forward.


Keith shows an exchange of messages between Hancock and Boris Johnson in early March.

Exchanges between Hancock and Johnson in early March
Exchanges between Hancock and Johnson in early March Photograph: Covid inquiry

Keith suggests that, at this point Hancock should have been asking for more help from No 10.

Hancock says by this time No 10 was fully engaged. Johnson had already chaired a Cobra. And he says the exchanges show him asking for a whole national effort on Covid.

Hancock says he was trying to 'raise the alarm' about Covid early, but ignored by No 10

Hancock is now deploying the defence previewed in the Observer on Sunday. (See 9.58am.)

He says from the middle of January the DHSC was “trying to effectively raise the alarm”. He says:

We were trying to wake up Whitehall to the scale of the problem and this wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be addressed only from the health department. Non-pharmaceutical interventions cannot be put in place by a health department. A health department can’t shut schools. It should have been grasped and led from the centre of government earlier. And you’ve seen evidence that repeatedly the department and I tried to make this happen.

And we were on occasions blocked, and at other times our concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been until the very end of February.

So for instance, the very first time I tried to call a Cobra [a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee] I was blocked – ultimately only for 48 hours – because I then went to get other voices to call for a Cobra. And it happened.

Hancock claims diary evidence showing DHSC was seen by No 10 as chaotic shows there was 'toxic culture' in Downing Street

Keith shows three extracts from Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary criticising the DHSC.

This one, from June 2020, talks about the “massive internal operational mess” inside DHSC.

Extract from Vallance’s diary
Extract from Vallance’s diary. Photograph: Covid inquiry

This one, from July 2020, quotes Sedwill talking about the “clear lack of grip” in DHSC.

Extract from Vallance’s diary
Extract from Vallance’s diary. Photograph: Covid inquiry

And this one, from August 2020, quotes an email from DHSC describing it as “ungovernable”.

Extract from Vallance’s diary
Extract from Vallance’s diary. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Hancock says some of Vallance’s diary entries were written after the event.

Keith pushes back at this. He says the vast majority of Vallance’s diary entries were written on the day. His diary was more contemporaneous than Hancock’s, he says.

Hancock goes on:

Did everything go right? Of course it didn’t.

He says it was natural for the Cabinet Office to be “sceptical” of government departments.

But he claims these entries were illustrative of the “toxic culture” in Downing Street, which was unhelpful. There was a desire to attribute fault and blame, he says.


Hancock says none of his predecessors had had to deal with a pandemic like this.

Keith says Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary at the time, said the Department of Health and Social Care was not resourced to deal with this. Sedwill said it was “under par”, Keith says.

Hancock says Sedwill did not use the phrase under par.

But it was clear the DHSC would have more to do, Hancock says.

Keith says Hancock has provided a new witness statement to the inquiry which is 176 pages long. That will be published when he has finished giving evidence.

Hancock also submitted a supplementary statement, addressing some further questions, he says.

And Keith says they have read his Pandemic Diaries, the book written with Isabel Oakeshott. Keith says this was not a contemporaneous diary, but instead a book written after the event describing what happened day by day.

Lady Hallett, the inquiry chair, starts by apologising to Hancock for the fact that he has had to give evidence more than once.

He also appeared during module one, when the inquiry was looking at pandemic preparedness.

Here is our report of that hearing in June.


Matt Hancock starts giving evidence to Covid inquiry

The hearing is starting. Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, is taking the oath. And he’s going to be questioned by Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel for the inquiry.


Boris Johnson to give evidence to Covid inquiry all Wednesday and Thursday next week, inquiry says

Boris Johnson is due to give evidence to the Covid inquiry for two days next week, on Wednesday and Thursday, the inquiry has announced. He is the only witness scheduled for next week.

Schedule for next week
Schedule for next week Photograph: Covid inquiry

Dominic Cummings' list of examples of when he says Hancock lied to No 10 about Covid

No witness has been more critical of Matt Hancock than Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser. In paragraph 508 of his witness statement Cummings gives a long list of times when he claims Hancock lied to No 10 about Covid arrangements.

Extract from Dominic Cummings' witness statement
Extract from Dominic Cummings' witness statement Photograph: Covid inquiry

What previous witnesses to Covid inquiry have said about Hancock

I was going to compile my own guide to the critical comments about Matt Hancock made by previous witnesses to the inquiry but, frankly, the list is so long that it would take quite a while. Luckily Dan Bloom and Noah Keate have done their own version for Politico’s London Playbook.

Hancock must now answer the Murder on the Orient Express-style procession of senior figures who’ve done him in. Greatest hits include Dominic Cummings calling him a “proven liar” … Helen MacNamara saying he’d say things in meetings that “we’d discover [weren’t] in fact the case” … Patrick Vallance saying he had a “habit” of saying things “without evidence to back them up” … Mark Sedwill texting that he needed removing to “save lives and protect the NHS” … Simon Case name-checking him in the government’s “weak team” … Manchester mayor Andy Burnham saying Hancock knew Tier 3 restrictions wouldn’t work when he imposed them … Simon Stevens saying he wanted to decide “who should live and who should die” … and Chris Wormald saying he “overpromised” (but not that he lied).

John Stevens at the Mirror has also got a longer version of the same list.


Matt Hancock appears at Covid inquiry

Good morning. With the possible exception of Boris Johnson, no one has received as much criticism from witnesses giving evidence to the Covid inquiry as Matt Hancock, who was health secretary for the first 15 months of the pandemic, including all three lockdowns. He has a lot to answer for and the inquiry has set aside a day and a half for his evidence.

As Toby Helm reported in the Observer at the weekend, Hancock’s allies believe he will hit back by arguing that his efforts to get No 10 to take Covid more seriously in early 2020 were ignored. Toby says:

Matt Hancock and his officials bombarded Downing Street with early warnings about Covid-19 but were treated with ridicule and contempt, according to senior Whitehall figures, who believe that the former health secretary is unfairly being made a scapegoat by civil servants and scientists during the official inquiry into the pandemic.

Attempts by the Department of Health, in mid to late January 2020, to raise the alarm were dismissed out of hand by senior staff working for the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, because they believed Hancock was mainly seeking publicity and exaggerating the dangers, the insiders say.

One with detailed knowledge of events at the time told the Observer: “The DoH was pushing really hard and the Cabinet Office and Downing Street were saying :‘Look, we’ve just had an election and we have got to get Brexit done: could you and your pandemic just fuck off and stop irritating us.’ They totally trivialised it and did not want to engage.”

I will be focusing on Hancock’s evidence for most of the day, but other politics will get a look-in too. Here is the agenda for the day.

Morning: Rishi Sunak is on a visit in Guildford.

9am: Gordon Brown, the former Labour PM, speaks at a Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Pay conference in Edinburgh.

10am: Matt Hancock gives evidence to the Covid inquiry. The hearing is scheduled to run all day and continue tomorrow.

10am: Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister who now leads the Alba party, is holding a press conference.

11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

If you want to contact me, do try the “send us a message” feature. You’ll see it just below the byline – on the left of the screen, if you are reading on a laptop or a desktop. This is for people who want to message me directly. I find it very useful when people message to point out errors (even typos – no mistake is too small to correct). Often I find your questions very interesting, too. I can’t promise to reply to them all, but I will try to reply to as many as I can, either in the comments below the line; privately (if you leave an email address and that seems more appropriate); or in the main blog, if I think it is a topic of wide interest.


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