Covid Inquiry: Hancock was a serial ‘over-promiser’ not a liar, perm sec says

Chris Wormald rejects criticisms DHSC was structurally “chaotic”, “dysfunctional” and “ungovernable”
Sir Chris Wormald appears at the Covid Inquiry yesterday

By Jim Dunton

03 Nov 2023

Department of Health and Social Care permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald has told the Covid Inquiry he was unaware of a “widespread” view that former health secretary Matt Hancock had a reputation for being untruthful.

Wormald also rejected the suggestion that the department had been “chaotic”, “dysfunctional” or “ungovernable” at yesterday’s hearing. However, he accepted criticisms from former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill, who said DHSC was neither structured nor resourced for a challenge on the scale of Covid-19.

The perm sec faced questions for more than two hours at the session, with his experience of Hancock’s honesty an early area of exploration.

Wormald acknowledged that he was aware of accusations from Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, who has described Hancock as a “proven liar”. But he said other concerns from within No.10 and the Cabinet Office were unfamiliar.

He said there had been “a very small number of cases” where people said Hancock had said something untrue, but “quite a lot” of concerns that the then-health secretary had been “over optimistic about what would happen and over promised on what could be delivered”.

Wormald said complaints about individual untruths did not occur regularly and that when he looked into them he “couldn't see any validity to the accusation”.

He told the inquiry: “To take an example, he was accused of misleading the prime minister about whether people being discharged from hospital into care homes were going to be tested. When I looked at that I couldn't find any evidence that he had done that. I didn't witness it. And it had been stated in public that we were not undertaking such tests. So I couldn't see how there had been any misleading going on.”

The perm sec said the other category of complaint had been considerably more frequent.

“I'm sure Mr Hancock will say he believed that what he said was deliverable,” Wormald said. “His style of leadership was to set very hard challenges as a way of motivating the system.”

Wormald said he thought the over-promising issue probably came up most in relation to Hancock’s pledge to ramp Covid testing up to the 100,000-a-day level by the end of April 2020. 

Wormald said he had conversations with Hancock about the belief in government that he was “overpromising” and that the health secretary had responded that he was saying things he believed to be possible and that it was “very important to be both optimistic and aspirational”.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC asked Wormald whether he had expressed concern to Hancock about the implications his reputation could have for DHSC’s relationship with the rest of government.  

“No, I didn't have that conversation,” Wormald said. “I was not aware of the widespread view that has been expressed to this inquiry by witnesses.”

DHSC “neither structured nor resourced” for a public-health crisis like Covid

Wormald was also asked about statements to the inquiry from Cummings, Sedwill, former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, which painted a withering picture of DHSC’s capabilities in early 2020 as the pandemic hit.

Cummings said DHSC had been “overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis” between February and May 2020, “didn’t have anything like the people it needed”, “couldn’t quickly build capacity” and was “bad at asking the Cabinet Office for help”.

MacNamara said in her witness statement that the centre of government had “mistakenly” failed to appreciate that DHSC was focused on impacts to the acute health system in the early days of the pandemic, rather than on the “wider and long-term health of the public”.

She added: “It was difficult to get the right kind of engagement from DHSC or the NHS. There was an inbuilt reluctance to accept that it was possible to get to a point where the NHS was overwhelmed and/or to acknowledge that this would be something that No.10 and the prime minister would need to be across and content with the handling of.”

Sedwill’s statement praised the heroics of NHS and DHSC staff – as well as officials from across the public sector and Armed Forces who joined in the pandemic surge.

But the former cabinet secretary added: “DHSC was neither structured nor resourced for a public health crisis of this magnitude. It straddled the complex NHS, the over-stretched PHE and the fragmented public/private provision of social care. Moreover, responsibility for protecting citizens in need was scattered across central, devolved and local government and the public, private and third sectors.”

Lead counsel Keith said that Vallance had expressed views about “operational mess”, “inefficiency” and “lack of grip in DHSC” in his evening notes, and had referred to an email from within the department that described it as “ungovernable” and a “web of competing parts”.

The KC asked Wormald whether he accepted the proposition that “DHSC was to a significant and important extent chaotic, dysfunctional or ungovernable” in terms of its structure.

“No,” Wormald replied. “I don’t think any of those things.

“I don’t recognise the chaos and dysfunction. I recognise people working incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances to get on top of huge challenges.”

Wormald said that neither MacNamara nor Vallance had aired the views reported to the inquiry to him at the time and that he would have expected them to do so.

The perm sec said he “largely agreed” with the views expressed by Sedwill, adding that Cummings’ views on civil servants were “long-held and very public”.

Elsewhere, yesterday’s session heard that Vallance had complained of having been given an indirect “ticking off” by Wormald in March 2020 for making a “bombshell” call for the acceleration of measures to suppress Covid-19 at a COBRA meeting.

Wormald said he had “no recollection” of the incident. But added: “I clearly said something that caused him to think that. And Sir Patrick is one of the most honest and straightforward people I know.”

The perm sec was later questioned about the timing of the first two national lockdowns in 2020.

He said that with hindsight the original lockdown should have been called a week earlier, but stood by the government’s reasoning because of “considerable uncertainty” about the virus at the time.

Wormald said the same could not be said for the second lockdown in November 2020, which he said should also have been called earlier.

“By this point we have a lot of testing, we know a lot about the virus … we're not modelling, we basically know how it goes up and down,” he said.

“The debates in November are not about what is the situation, they're about what is the right strategy. It was much more: are lockdowns a good idea or not? Not, what is the timing of a lockdown and what do we know.”

The inquiry continues.

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