According to high-ranking government officials, Matt Hancock and his team repeatedly alerted Downing Street to the dangers of Covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic. However, they were met with mockery and disrespect. These officials believe that the former health secretary is being unfairly blamed by both civil servants and scientists in the official investigation into the handling of the pandemic.
The Department of Health’s efforts to warn others in January 2020 were ignored by high-ranking employees under Boris Johnson’s leadership. These employees believed that Health Secretary Matt Hancock was simply trying to gain attention and exaggerating the risks, according to insiders.
An individual with extensive understanding of the events during that time informed the Observer that the Department of Health was exerting a lot of pressure while the Cabinet Office and Downing Street were dismissive, citing the recent election and the need to prioritize Brexit. They essentially disregarded the severity of the pandemic and did not want to address it.
On Thursday and Friday, Hancock will appear before the Covid inquiry and is expected to mount a concerted effort to defend his reputation, after weeks in which he has come under attack for being dishonest, incompetent and more interested in self-promotion than tackling the spread of the coronavirus.
The former health secretary’s supporters acknowledge that he could be irritating and overly confident, but they are optimistic that he will take this opportunity to address what they perceive as a deliberate effort by others to shift the blame away from themselves and hide their slow response.
According to a source, including Dominic Cummings, Mark Sedwill, and Simon Case, who are all close to Johnson, they were aware that they were slow to recognize the threat of Covid. They saw an opportunity to make Matt Hancock the scapegoat due to his annoying personality, but they did not believe he was untrustworthy or dishonest at the time.
Sedwill has acknowledged in the investigation that he was asked on approximately January 21, 2020 by Hancock’s Department of Health for a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee to address the spread of Covid and its impact on the UK.
Sedwill expressed concern that the Cobra meeting, possibly called for communication purposes, was not a wise decision. He stated that Hancock may have been trying to gain media attention by raising concerns. However, Sedwill later learned that there was a legitimate reason for the meeting involving multiple government departments and he agreed to it.
Sedwill’s WhatsApp messages also indicate that he advised Johnson to fire the “dishonest” health secretary in order to “preserve lives and safeguard the NHS”. Sedwill later clarified that this was meant as a joke in a message to Case.
Hancock has faced criticism from top scientists as well. According to Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer for the government, Hancock often jumped to conclusions and made statements without sufficient evidence during the inquiry last week.
Vallance stated that the individual in question had a tendency to make statements without a solid foundation and would often do so with excessive enthusiasm before having proper evidence to support them. This would then lead to retracting these statements days later. It is unclear if this behavior was due to genuine excitement or intentional deception, but it appears that a significant factor was the individual’s enthusiasm.
Previously, Helen MacNamara, a high-ranking government official in Downing Street, stated during the investigation that Hancock frequently provided information to individuals that turned out to be false, and that No 10 had doubts about the accuracy of his statements.
Hancock is likely to face the most scrutiny for his repeated statements in May 2020 regarding a “protective ring” being placed around care homes. He was referring to the assurance that patients leaving hospitals and entering care homes were free of Covid-19.
During the initial surge of the pandemic, there were nearly 27,000 additional deaths in care homes in England and Wales, surpassing the average from 2015-2019. The virus spread extensively within care homes, resulting in 13 homes in England experiencing over 24 Covid-related deaths each within a span of 11 weeks at the beginning of the pandemic.
The previous secretary of health may also be questioned about his concerns regarding Rishi Sunak’s implementation of the “eat out to help out” program.
The plan, referred to as the “eat out to spread the virus” program within the Department of Health, was introduced without input from scientists or Hancock. Hancock was only made aware of the plan when he read the press release on the day of its announcement.
Last week, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who previously served as England’s deputy chief medical officer during the pandemic, stated that he was not consulted about the “eat out to help out” program.
Van-Tam first learned about it from television. He believes that if he had been asked, he would have expressed that it went against the goals of the government and scientists during the past few months. Thus, it did not seem reasonable to him.
Next week, both Sunak and Johnson are expected to make an appearance at the inquiry.