Matt Hancock has accused former No.10 chief adviser Dominic Cummings of being a “malign actor” who embarked on a power-grab in the wake of the 2019 general election.
The former health secretary’s comments came in evidence to the Covid Inquiry yesterday after he had already criticised a “toxic culture” of blame at the centre of government in the early months of the pandemic.
Hancock said Cummings, who was then-PM Boris Johnson’s top adviser from July 2019 to November 2020, had exercised too much influence over Johnson’s decision-making ability, and sought to shut ministers out of the decision-making process.
He told the inquiry that the former chief adviser had chosen to circumvent the COBR system, short for Cabinet Office Briefing Room, for top-level crisis management – excluding ministers from decisions in early 2020 as the threat from the pandemic grew.
“I'll be very specific about what I thought went wrong,” Hancock said. “As the COBR system was running, in February, the prime minister's chief adviser decided to 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.”
Hancock said Cummings set up a daily meeting at 8am as part of the move.
“He invited some of the right people but not all of them,” the former health secretary said. “He didn't check with me beforehand and clashed it directly with my daily meeting, which was frustrating because we had a daily meeting in the department to feed into the prime minister's meeting at 9.15.”
Hancock said Cummings had “actively circumvented” the proper government emergency response system and had told one session that decisions “don’t need to go to the prime minister”.
“That is inappropriate in a democracy,” Hancock said. “And I saw it as simply as essentially a power grab, but it definitely got in the way of the…of organising the response for the period it was in operation.”
Hancock said government’s emergency-response capabilities needed to be able to withstand similar behaviour in the future.
“If there are people whose behaviour is unprofessional, the system needs to be able to work despite that,” he said. “That's why I think I place reliance on the COBR system and why I tried to use the COBR system. That is the repository of emergency response knowledge, understanding, experience within government, and it was the appropriate place to run this response.”
Hancock told the session that Cummings’ arrangements had stayed in place until the introduction of the “ministerial implementation groups” system in March 2020. Each of the four MIGs was chaired by a secretary of state and fed into the PM’s 9.15am strategy meeting. They were replaced by the Covid Taskforce in May 2020.
“I was not a liar”
Earlier evidence to the inquiry has heard repeated observations from senior figures in government that Hancock had a reputation for being untruthful. Cummings made direct accusations, and the view was also supported by former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill, former deputy cab sec Helen MacNamara, and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Hancock how such important government advisers and officials could have come to the view that the secretary of state tasked with leading the response to a public health crisis was a liar.
“Well, I was not,” Hancock responded. “You will note that there is no evidence from anybody who I worked with in the department or the health system who supported those false allegations.
“Where there have been specifics attached to any of those allegations I have gone through them and I'd be very happy to answer questions on any of them.”
Hancock said that in a couple of occasions his accusers had made general sweeping allegations that had “no evidence whatsoever”.
“In one case the witness said ‘I haven't got this in black and white’,” he said. “Well, of course not because it wasn't true.
“In another case the witness said the accountability and governance arrangements didn't pick this up. Well, they didn't because, again, the allegation wasn't there.”
Last month Department of Health and Social Care perm sec Sir Chris Wormald told the inquiry that most concerns he was aware of about Hancock had been in relation to “over optimistic” expectations and a tendency to “over-promise” rather than untruthfulness.
Yesterday’s session was shown a 1 May 2020 text message to Hancock that was sent by Sedwill, praising him for his appearance at one of the government’s daily Covid briefings that had taken place earlier.
“Hi Matt. Well done this evening,” the then cabinet secretary wrote. “Creative counting and 122k! [undisclosed emoji] It would be good to have a word sometime over the weekend about vaccines and observatory/response. I’m keen we get the rest of government putting real heft into these big programmes and fast.”
Hancock responded with a three-kiss emoji.
Keith asked Hancock whether he accepted or rejected the suggestion that he had engaged in “creative counting” in relation to the testing numbers.
“I reject it. And on every different way you could possibly count these measures, we hit that target,” he replied.
Eat Out to Help Out
In October the inquiry heard evidence that in August 2020 Hancock had pleaded with Simon Case, the Cabinet Office second permanent secretary at the time, for the Eat Out to Help Out scheme not to be extended.
The scheme was an HM Treasury initiative pushed by then-chancellor Rishi Sunak that was designed to boost midweek footfall at restaurants and cafés following the first lockdown. It was not presented to health advisers for input before its launch.
Hancock’s WhatsApp message to Case said: “Just want to let you know directly we’ve had lots of feedback that Eat Out to Help Out is causing problems in our intervention areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious. So please, please let’s not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”
Hancock subsequently told Case: “We've told Treasury. We've been protecting them in the comms & thankfully it hasn't bubble[d] up.”
Keith asked Hancock whether he had expressed serious reservations about the scheme when he first learned of it in early July.
“Once it was announced it was a done deal that it was government policy, I expressed caution and argued very strongly against its extension at the end of August, and I don't think its extension was ever seriously in prospect,” Hancock said.
Keith noted the discrepancy between Hancock’s internal concerns about the scheme and his complicity in suppressing information about the scheme’s impact on the spread of the virus.
“That's because I abide by collective responsibility, and I was being encouraged by various journalists who would presume that I was against it to criticise the then-chancellor,” Hancock replied.
“But I believe that government is team effort and so I didn't want that to become a row in public.
“You can see during the whole pandemic the corrosive effect of leaks. I was not part of that. I don't appreciate government by leak, and hence I abided by collective responsibility on and off the record.”
The inquiry continues.