Hancock: Whitehall took too long to realise pandemic was a cross-government crisis

Former health secretary tells Covid Inquiry he and DHSC were victims of a “toxic culture” of blame
Matt Hancock gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry this morning

By Jim Dunton

30 Nov 2023

Matt Hancock has accused fellow ministers of being too slow to recognise that the coronavirus pandemic was a cross-government crisis, leaving the Department of Health and Social Care to take on responsibilities that should have been shouldered by others.

The former health secretary also told this morning’s Covid Inquiry session that criticism levelled at him and DHSC was part of an “an unhealthy toxic culture” at the centre of government that had “flipped” out of the Cabinet Office’s normal role as a challenger of departments.

Hancock said that from January 2020 – when the first UK cases of Covid-19 had yet to be identified – he had been an active advocate for a whole-of-government approach to preparing for the potential for the nation be seriously affected by the virus.  A cross-government approach was not adopted until the end of February.

“At the start of the pandemic, the whole of the department – including me – was trying to wake up Whitehall to this threat,” he said.

“Early on the department ended up doing things which really aren’t for a health department. But we were doing them because no-one else was.”

Hancock said shielding the vulnerable was “very clearly” something that needed to be a cross-government effort, but ended up being a programme that he had to commission. He added that work on school closures and non-pharmaceutical interventions were handled by DHSC before transferring to the Covid Task Force at the Cabinet Office.

“The department had a huge amount to do,” he said. “But I would argue that because the rest of Whitehall was slow getting going we had to get up there and do it.

“And if that led to criticism from those in the centre of government then, frankly, I’d far rather that we did step up and take that responsibility, even though it brought us flak later.”

Hancock said the lead-government-department model worked very well for small crises and medium-sized crises, but “does not work for a whole-of-government, indeed a whole-of-society crisis”.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Hancock about some of the criticisms he had faced – including from former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill, former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

In his statement to the inquiry Sedwill said DHSC was “neither structured nor resourced” for a public health crisis of the magnitude it faced in the spring of 2020. Later in the year, Sedwill urged the then-PM Boris Johnson to sack the health secretary, documents presented to the inquiry revealed.

Keith quoted Sedwill’s comments about structure and resourcing and asked Hancock if DHSC had been “under par” when the pandemic hit.

“He didn’t use the words under par, they’re you’re words,” Hancock replied. “And I would reject that because the senior personnel in DHSC were absolutely superb and rose to the challenge.

“But it’s blazingly obvious that when a pandemic strikes the health department is going to have more to do, so I regard that comment as very straightforward.”

Hancock said other criticisms, which included observations from Vallance and MacNamara demonstrated “a lack of generosity or empathy in understanding the difficulty of rising to such a big challenge”.

“Did everything go right? Of course it didn’t, and you wouldn’t expect it to,” Hancock said. “It is natural for the centre, the Cabinet Office, to be sceptical of departments. The culture of the Cabinet Office is to be sceptical of the operation of departments. Partly to hold them to account.”

However Hancock said the culture of challenge had “clearly flipped over into an unhealthy toxic culture at the centre, where anything that went wrong was seen as almost an intentional failure”.

The former health secretary also accused unnamed individuals of spreading “misinformation about what the department was delivering … including to the prime minister and at the very highest levels”.

“I tried to lead a positive can-do culture where if there was a problem the question that was raised in the department was ‘how do we fix this?’,” he said. “You can see, unfortunately, that we rubbed up against this deep unpleasantness at the centre.”

Hancock was also quizzed at this morning’s inquiry session about his recent claim to have urged Johnson to introduce an immediate national lockdown on 13 March 2020 – 10 days before the step was actually taken.

Keith asked the former health secretary why his 555-page book Pandemic Diaries: The inside story of Britain's battle against Covid had failed to record the interaction with the then-PM.

Hancock said further evidence had come to light since he wrote the book. He also cited a 13 March 2020 e-mail exchange with Johnson in which he called for a “suppression strategy” and work on a global initiative to combat Covid-19.

Keith asked the former health secretary whether the e-mail had used the words “immediate” and “lockdown”.

Hancock said he didn’t have the communication in front of him.

The inquiry continues.

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