At times during his appearance at the UK Covid-19 inquiry, former health secretary Matt Hancock was as slippery as any snake he encountered in his past stint in the “I’m a Celebrity” jungle.
But as much as Hugo Keith, the inquiry’s lead counsel, tried to snare his quarry on his handling of Britain’s much-criticised virus response, Hancock mostly managed to squirm away. Keith gets another chance on Friday morning when the former health secretary returns for further questioning.
The UK’s Covid inquiry’s public hearings take place in a building on a leafy avenue in northwest inner London near Paddington station. Family members of dead Covid victims, angry at the government’s handling of the pandemic, gathered outside to greet Hancock upon his arrival.
Inside the chamber where he gave almost six hours of evidence on Thursday, several of the grieving relatives sat in the front row of the public gallery holding up pictures of their dead loved ones as he walked in. Hancock glanced at them over his right shoulder as he sat down.
The frosty welcome from families, the room’s low ceiling and Keith’s relentless questioning style all combined to create a foreboding atmosphere for Hancock as he gave his evidence.
The room was warm and stuffy and pipes for the heating system occasionally hissed like a boiling kettle under the pressure of the hot water running through them. The hissing kicked in several times right as Keith raised the temperature with his pugnacious questioning.
All eyes were locked on Hancock as he defended himself against accusations from earlier witnesses, recalled by Keith, that he was a “liar” with a misplaced “nuclear confidence” who botched the virus response.
On the contrary, Hancock insisted, he recognised long before any other senior government official, including some scientific advisers, that virus disaster was on its way. The heating pipes hissed again.
Hancock took aim at former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings, calling him a “malign actor” who created a toxic culture at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government.
Keith confronted Hancock with WhatsApp messages in which he criticised former chancellor, and now prime minister, Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out restaurant subsidy scheme for driving up infection rates. Hancock squirmed as Keith basically invited him to condemn Sunak in public.
Keith raised his eyebrows with incredulity as Hancock claimed he had demanded Johnson lock down the country earlier than it did in a phone call for which there are no written records.
“Are you sure?” pressed Keith. Hancock insisted he was. On social media, Cummings ridiculed him.
The battle resumes at 10am on Friday.