Boris Johnson considered removing Matt Hancock from his job as health secretary at the height of the pandemic but there was no guarantee he would be “trading up” if he put someone else in.
The former prime minister backed Mr Hancock at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, saying he had done a “good job in very difficult circumstances” as the Government struggled to get to grips with Covid-19 in 2020.
The former health secretary has been criticised by a number of witnesses at the Covid-19 inquiry, including Dominic Cummings and former civil service chief Lord Sedwill.
The inquiry heard that in one WhatsApp exchange with the permanent secretary at No 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 former top Number 10 adviser Mr Cummings repeatedly pushed Mr Johnson to sack Mr Hancock.
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.
Mr Johnson told the inquiry: “I was aware that the DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) was under fire from loads of people but that was hardly surprising because the country was going through a horrific pandemic.”
He added: “You’ve got a lot of very talented sometimes super-confident, sometimes egotistical, people who are crushed with anxiety about what is happening to their country, who are wracked secretly with self-doubt and self-criticism and who externalise that by criticising others. And it’s human nature.
“When you’re the leader in those circumstances, your job is to work out what is justified and what is people sounding off and what is political nonsense.
“And my judgment was that Matt was, on the whole, doing a good job in very difficult circumstances and there was no advantage in moving him as I was being urged to do, that was my judgment.”
He told the inquiry the Department of Health had an “outstanding” permanent secretary in Sir Chris Wormald and there was “no advantage to the country” in removing Mr Hancock.
“Whatever his failings may or may not have been, I didn’t see any advantage to the country, at a critical time to the country, in moving him in exchange for someone else when I couldn’t be sure that we were necessarily going to be trading up.
“I did think about it, of course I thought about it. But I thought that was the best thing to do, but what we also did was we took control, and the management of the pandemic was basically centralised in No 10.”
He said claims that Mr Hancock was kept on to be a “sacrifice” at the inquiry were “nonsense”.
Mr Hancock eventually resigned as health secretary in June 2021 after footage emerged of him kissing his aide Gina Coladangelo in his office during a time of strict Covid rules.
He now sits as an independent after losing the Tory party whip for appearing on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… reality TV show.