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Cummings ‘malign actor’ who created culture of fear, Hancock tells Covid inquiry

Former health secretary Matt Hancock arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Yui Mok/PA)
Former health secretary Matt Hancock arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Yui Mok/PA)

Matt Hancock has accused Dominic Cummings of creating a “culture of fear” in Government which undermined the pandemic response as he defended his record as health secretary.

The former minister painted Boris Johnson’s ex-chief adviser as a “malign actor” who subjected his staff to abuse as they grappled with the emergence of Covid-19.

Mr Cummings sought to grab power from the then-prime minister while shutting out ministers from key meetings, Mr Hancock told the UK’s official pandemic inquiry.

Mr Hancock played a key role in the response to the pandemic, but his performance has been repeatedly criticised by a number of other witnesses, including Mr Cummings.

Hitting back as he gave evidence on Thursday, the former health secretary said Mr Cummings had attempted to exert influence over decision-making in a way that was “inappropriate in a democracy”.

“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,” Mr Hancock said.

“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.”

He added: “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.”

Mr Hancock suggested Mr Cummings had subjected his staff to abuse, telling the inquiry: “Was it unpleasant? Yes, it was unpleasant for a whole load of my staff as well who were subject to this sort of abuse from the chief adviser.

“It went further, wider than I thought at the time, but my job was to lead the health and care system, the whole thing.”

He rejected claims he lied to colleagues about having a plan for the outbreak, describing these as “false allegations”.

Instead he pointed the finger at Mr Cummings for, he suggested, presiding over an atmosphere in which blame was attributed rather than allowing people to “spend all of their effort solving the problems”.

“It was deeply, deeply frustrating… we’ve discussed the structural problem which was essentially an adviser trying to take executive authority away from the prime minister for a period until the cabinet secretary stopped it and put in place the MIG (Ministerial Implementation Group) process,” Mr Hancock said.

“But there was also effectively a cultural problem which is that there was a culture of fear inculcated by the behaviour of this particular individual.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Matt Hancock denied being a liar in his evidence on Thursday (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Referring to the resignation of former chancellor Sajid Javid, Mr Hancock added: “He did in the middle of this, in the middle of February, effectively cause the resignation of the chancellor of the exchequer.”

Critics have questioned the former health secretary’s record on key issues during the pandemic response, like Covid testing for nursing homes and asymptomatic cases.

Also known for his appearance last year on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, Mr Hancock’s political career was torpedoed after footage emerged in 2021 of his embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo which broke social distancing guidelines.

But in Thursday’s evidence he insisted that he had taken “precautionary” measures, in some cases overriding the scientific advice he had been given, and described himself as in the “pro-let’s worry about asymptomatic transmission camp”.

Giving an example, Mr Hancock said he overruled guidance from Public Health England (PHE) during the early pandemic suggesting there was not a need to quarantine people being brought back from Wuhan in China.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Matt Hancock insisted his department rose to the challenge of the pandemic ( UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

While Mr Hancock accepted the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) had not got everything right, he said his department had “effectively” tried to “raise the alarm” to wider Government as early as January, but its concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been.

“We were on occasions blocked,” he told the inquiry.

He and the DHSC faced “deep unpleasantness” from the centre of Government during the early months of the pandemic while the rest of Whitehall was slow to react, Mr Hancock said.

“A healthy culture involves scepticism, an unhealthy culture involves false allegations and extremely unpleasant language,” he added.

Mr Hancock said he believed No 10 was preventing Mr Johnson from speaking publicly about the virus in February 2020 and said he was also not allowed to give radio interviews about the subject.

Meanwhile, he insisted he had warned the then-PM to lock down as early as March 13 2020, but conceded there was no entry in his own Pandemic Diaries memoir to back up that claim.

Messages from that time show him advocating a “global suppression strategy,” the inquiry heard, but he could not say whether he used the words “immediate” or “lockdown” at any point in these interventions.

Rebuking Mr Hancock’s account in a broadside on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Cummings said he was “outright lying” by claiming to have privately pushed Mr Johnson to impose the measure and “talking rubbish” to the inquiry.

Allies of the ex-minister told the PA news agency in response: “Cummings is not a reliable witness and this tweet is wrong.”

The former aide was among a number of senior figures who questioned Mr Hancock’s approach in their evidence, with the inquiry hearing that the country’s most senior civil servant at the time, Lord Sedwill, wanted the minister sacked.

In one WhatsApp exchange with the permanent secretary at Number 10 Simon Case – who is the current Cabinet Secretary – Lord Sedwill joked it was necessary to remove Mr Hancock to “save lives and protect the NHS”.

WhatsApp messages shared with the inquiry also revealed that Mr Cummings repeatedly pushed Mr Johnson to fire the former minister.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Dominic Cummings repeatedly urged the then prime minister Boris Johnson to sack Mr Hancock (James Manning/PA)

At one stage, Mr Cummings claimed Mr Hancock had “lied his way through this and killed people and dozens and dozens of people have seen it”.

Helen MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary, also claimed in her evidence that Mr Hancock displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence – assertions that he rejected on Thursday.

“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,” Mr Hancock said.

Sir Christopher Wormald, a senior civil servant in the Department of Health, suggested it was a “very small number of people” claiming that the minister was “actually telling untruths”.

But he added that there were a lot who thought he was “overoptimistic” and “overpromised” on what could be delivered.

Meanwhile, the inquiry has confirmed Mr Johnson will face two days of questioning over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic when he gives evidence next week.