Government pandemic planning doctrine was 'wrong', Hancock tells Covid Inquiry

Covid-era health secretary says UK was too focused on having enough body bags and burial space, and not enough on avoiding deaths
Matt Hancock at Covid Inquiry. Photo: Covid-19 Inquiry/Youtube

By Tom Scotson

28 Jun 2023

The UK government’s planning doctrine to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic "was wrong", former health secretary Matt Hancock has told the Covid Inquiry.

The former health secretary told the inquiry that the UK was too focused on planning for the “consequences of a disaster” and not enough on preventing a pandemic from escalating.

Hancock, who lost the Conservative whip after appearing on reality TV show I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! last year, and now sits as an independent MP, gave evidence to the Covid-19 inquiry yesterday which focused on his time as health secretary from 2018-2021.

He told Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the inquiry, that the UK's planning doctrine to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic "was wrong".

"The attitude, the doctrine of the UK was to plan for the consequences of a disaster. Can we buy enough body bags? Where are we going to bury the dead?” Hancock said.

"I am profoundly sorry for the impact that had. I am profoundly sorry for each death that has occurred and I also understand why for some it will be hard to take that apology for me," he added.

Hancock maintained he was "assured" the UK was uniquely well prepared for a pandemic. “I was also assured that the UK was one of the best placed countries in the world for responding to a pandemic and indeed in some areas categorised by the World Health Organisation as the best placed in the world," he said.

The UK's Covid death rate was five per cent higher than larger European nations including Germany and France, according to BBC analysis. Analysis from the British Medical Association found the UK government "failed to act quickly" in response to the emergence of Covid-19.

Its report found the government "abandoned" contact tracing in mid-March and there was a "significant delay" before social distancing and a nationwide lockdown was called. The former prime minister Boris Johnson failed to initially force mandatory face masks despite growing pressure from global health agencies.

During the summer of 2020 the "political narrative" was dominated by trying to ease restrictions as opposed to preparing for an increase in infections over the winter months. Dominic Cummings, who was Boris Johnson's most senior adviser during the pandemic, claimed his former boss was averse to implementing restrictions on people's freedoms.

Shortages of personal protective equipment were a key sticking point in 2020, and led to warnings that medical staff were not sufficiently protected from the virus. Hancock claimed he was told the UK had an abundance of PPE equipment but said it was "extremely hard to get it out when the crisis hit".

Hancock's evidence echoed testimony from his former Conservative colleages last week. Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018, said that he believed there had been a groupthink in government that politicians would be helpless in stopping the virus spreading like "wildfire" across the population.

“There were no questions at any stage of how do we stop it getting to the stage of 200,000-400,000 fatalities," he said.

“It was an assumption that if it were pandemic flu it would spread, using laymen’s terms, like wildfire and you pretty much couldn’t stop it.”

“What we did not ask is: Is it pandemic flu that we are only likely to be hit by? Could there be something [with] MERS like characteristics?"

Former prime minister David Cameron also told the Covid-19 Inquiry on 19th June it was a "mistake" for his government not to have prepared for a range of different types of pandemics, and instead placing a disproportionate focus on influenza.

“It was a mistake not to look more at the range of different types of pandemics,” Cameron said.

“Many of the reports don’t mention potential asymptomatic transmission and so when you think what would be different if more time had been spent on a high infectious asymptomatic pandemic, different recommendations would have been made about what was necessary to prevent that.”

The former prime minister said it was “very hard to answer” why more questions were not asked about the likelihood of pandemics caused by other types of highly-transmissible diseases.

Despite saying he had wanted to avoid “group-think” in government on this issue, Cameron said that as a system, they had focused on the “well-known risks” of pandemic influenza so had concentrated resources on that particular eventuality.

The original version of this story first appeared on CSW sister publication Politics Home

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