Ex-health secretary Matt Hancock decries ‘toxic culture’ in UK government amid Covid-19 pandemic

Hancock says Britain should have locked down at the start of March 2020, three weeks earlier than it did, and that he now realises this would have saved 90% of lives lost in first wave

Britain’s former health secretary Matt Hancock has painted a damning picture of the UK government’s initial response to the Covid pandemic in early 2020, as he gave evidence to the official UK Covid-19 Inquiry in London on Thursday.

Mr Hancock, who led the UK’s pandemic response under former prime minister Boris Johnson, said Britain should have locked down at the start of March 2020, three weeks earlier than it did. He said he now realises this would have saved 90 per cent of the lives lost in the first wave, suggesting that he believes tens of thousands of British people died needlessly between March and May 2020.

Mr Hancock denied allegations previously made to the inquiry by other former senior officials that he was a “liar” who consistently misrepresented the true picture of his handling of the virus response.

In front of a public gallery that included family members of people who died with Covid, Mr Hancock blamed a “toxic culture” at the heart of Mr Johnson’s government for spreading “misinformation” about him and for hampering the government’s response to the virus.


After Hugo Keith, the inquiry’s lead counsel, confronted Mr Hancock with WhatsApp messages from other senior officials that were damning of his performance, he replied that “in the heat of a crisis people say things on WhatsApp that may not be their full considered opinion”.

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He reserved particular ire for Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser at the outset of the pandemic. Mr Hancock said Mr Cummings was a “malign actor” who made comments without checking facts.

He accused Mr Cummings of inculcating a “culture of fear” at the heart of Britain’s government and of instigating a “power grab... that was inappropriate at the heart of a democracy” by excluding him from meetings about Covid. As Mr Hancock gave his evidence, Mr Cummings responded on social media by repeating claims that the former health secretary was not telling the truth.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Hancock painted himself as a Cassandra-like figure who had spent weeks trying to jolt a disinterested Whitehall into action at the start of the pandemic.

“From the middle of January we were sounding the alarm, trying to wake up Whitehall,” he said.

Mr Hancock said there should have been a “whole-of-government response” much earlier in the pandemic, as he suggested that Downing Street did not take the crisis seriously until March. Britain eventually entered lockdown on March 23rd, after abandoning its earlier strategy to try to limit, but not suppress, the spread of the virus. More than 35,000 people died in its first wave.

Mr Keith and Mr Hancock clashed several times during his evidence. The inquiry’s counsel pressed him on his claim that he had told Mr Johnson in a phone call on March 13th that Britain should enter lockdown. Mr Hancock admitted he had no documentary evidence that he had said this to the former prime minister, but insisted it was true.

Mr Hancock is due to continue giving evidence on Friday morning. Mr Johnson is schedule to appear before the inquiry next Wednesday and Thursday, while current prime minister Rishi Sunak, who was the chancellor during the pandemic, is expected to give evidence the following week.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times