Cummings ‘malign actor’ who created culture of fear, Hancock tells Covid inquiry

Matt Hancock insisted his department rose to the challenge of the pandemic ( UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Matt Hancock insisted his department rose to the challenge of the pandemic ( UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Matt Hancock has accused Dominic Cummings of creating a “culture of fear” in Government that undermined the pandemic response as he defended his record as health secretary at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

The former minister painted Boris Johnson’s ex-chief adviser as a “malign actor” who subjected Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) staff to abuse as they grappled with the emergence of Covid-19.

Mr Cummings sought to grab power from the then-prime minister while shutting out ministers from key meetings, Mr Hancock claimed.

Mr Hancock played a key role in the response to the pandemic but his performance has been repeatedly criticised by a number of other witnesses including Mr Cummings, who has branded him a “proven liar”.

Hitting back as he gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Thursday, the former health secretary said Mr Cummings had attempted to exert influence over decision-making in a way that was “inappropriate in a democracy”.

“As the Cobra system was running in February, the prime minister’s chief adviser decided that he didn’t like the Cobra system – that’s on the record – and he decided 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,” Mr Hancock told the inquiry.

“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.”

He added: “The reason these meetings are important is because there is a proper Government emergency response system and it was actively circumvented and in one of these early meetings the chief adviser said decisions don’t need to go to the prime minister.

“Now that is inappropriate in a democracy. I saw it simply as essentially a power-grab but it definitely got in the way of organising the response for the period it was in operation.”

Mr Hancock rejected claims he lied to colleagues about ways in which the pandemic was being dealt with, describing these as “false allegations”.

Instead he pointed the finger at Mr Cummings for, he suggested, presiding over an atmosphere in which blame was assigned rather than allowing people to “spend all of their effort solving the problems”.

“It was deeply, deeply frustrating… we’ve discussed the structural problem which was essentially an adviser trying to take executive authority away from the prime minister for a period until the cabinet secretary stopped it and put in place the MIG (Ministerial Implementation Group) process,” Mr Hancock said.

“But there was also effectively a cultural problem which is that there was a culture of fear inculcated by the behaviour of this particular individual.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Matt Hancock denied being a liar in his evidence on Thursday (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

“He did in the middle of this, in the middle of February, effectively cause the resignation of the chancellor of the exchequer.”

Mr Hancock was interrupted by lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC before saying “it’s important”, to which Mr Keith responded: “Please forgive me, the determination of what’s important is really for the questioner.”

Critics have questioned the former health secretary’s record on Covid testing, nursing homes and asymptomatic testing, which Mr Cummings said he claimed would not work.

Also known for his appearance last year on TV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, Mr Hancock’s political career was torpedoed after footage emerged in 2021 of his embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo which broke social distancing guidelines.

But in Thursday’s evidence he insisted that he had taken “precautionary” measures, in some cases overriding the scientific advice he had been given, and described himself as in the “pro-let’s worry about asymptomatic transmission camp”.

As an example, guidance from Public Health England (PHE) during the early pandemic was that there was not a need to quarantine people being brought back from Wuhan in China – which he overruled, Mr Hancock said.

He denied there had been an “absence of a plan” and insisted his department “rose to the challenge” of responding to the biggest public health crisis in a century.

Extracts from former chief scientific adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries read out by Mr Keith complained of a “massive internal mess inside DHSC and PHE”.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Matt Hancock insisted his department rose to the challenge of the pandemic ( UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

They recorded that then-cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill said there was a “clear lack of grip in DHSC”.

In response, Mr Hancock told the inquiry: “It’s normal for the centre, the Cabinet Office, to be sceptical of departments.”

He added: “I think that the toxic culture that you’ve seen at the centre of Government, that’s been the subject of much discussion, was unhelpful in assuming that when anything was difficult or a challenge, therefore there was somehow fault and blame.”

While Mr Hancock accepted the DHSC had not got everything right, he said his department had “effectively” tried to “raise the alarm” as early as January, but its concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been.

“We were on occasions blocked,” he told the inquiry.

Mr Hancock said he and the DHSC faced “deep unpleasantness” from the centre of Government during the early months of the pandemic while the rest of Whitehall was slow to react.

“A healthy culture involves scepticism, an unhealthy culture involves false allegations and extremely unpleasant language,” he said.

Reacting to Mr Hancock’s evidence in a lengthy broadside on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Cummings said he was “outright lying” and “talking rubbish” to the inquiry.

The former aide was among a number of senior figures who questioned Mr Hancock’s approach in their evidence, with the inquiry hearing that the country’s most senior civil servant at the time, Lord Sedwill, wanted the minister sacked.

In one WhatsApp exchange with the permanent secretary at Number 10 Simon Case – who is the current Cabinet Secretary – Lord Sedwill joked it was necessary to remove Mr Hancock to “save lives and protect the NHS”.

WhatsApp messages shared with the inquiry also revealed that Mr Cummings repeatedly pushed Mr Johnson to fire the former minister.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Dominic Cummings repeatedly urged the then prime minister Boris Johnson to sack Mr Hancock (James Manning/PA)

At one stage, Mr Cummings claimed Mr Hancock had “lied his way through this and killed people and dozens and dozens of people have seen it”.

Helen MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary, also claimed in her evidence that Mr Hancock displayed “nuclear levels” of overconfidence and a pattern of reassuring colleagues the pandemic was being dealt with in ways that were not true.

Sir Christopher Wormald, a senior civil servant in the Department of Health, suggested it was a “very small number of people” claiming that the minister was “actually telling untruths”.

But he added that there were a lot who thought he was “overoptimistic” and “overpromised” on what could be delivered.