According to the former head of NHS England, Matt Hancock stated that he would be the ultimate decision-maker on who lives or dies if the NHS became overwhelmed during the pandemic, rather than leaving it to medical professionals. This was revealed during the Covid-19 inquiry.
“Thankfully, this terrible predicament never materialized,” stated Simon Stevens in his testimony.
Hancock’s stance, developed during a Cabinet Office planning session in February 2020, differed from that of the previous Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Hunt believed that these decisions should be left to medical professionals.
On Thursday, Lord Stevens addressed the inquiry and stated that this ethical dilemma remained unresolved and resurfaced during discussions about the “rationing” of NHS services amidst the pandemic.
He mentioned the “Operation Nimbus” preparation activity in his testimony, stating that it provided useful insights into the potential challenges that government departments could encounter.
However, he stated, “It did raise a fundamental ethical discussion about a situation where a growing number of Covid-19 patients exceed the capacity of hospitals to care for them and other non-Covid-19 patients.”
The health and social care secretary believed that he, rather than the medical profession or the public, should have the final say in determining who lives and who dies in this scenario. Luckily, this difficult decision never had to be made.
During his appearance, Stevens refrained from criticizing Hancock. He also mentioned that he saw no reason to doubt Boris Johnson’s confidence in him as the chief of NHS England.
Stevens was presented with conversations from January and February 2020 between Dominic Cummings, then a top advisor to Boris Johnson, and Matt Hancock, regarding the potential relocation of Stevens from his position in the NHS.
In a single communication, Cummings expressed frustration with Stevens and Hancock “fabricating information once more”.
According to Stevens, this would be considered a mild insult in comparison to Dominic Cummings’ standards. Stevens also stated that Hancock did not pressure him to resign during the pandemic and there was no indication that he was defying Downing Street by remaining in his position, as described by counsel Andrew O’Connor KC.
When asked about the trust between Johnson, Cummings, and himself, Stevens stated that he could not speak on behalf of Cummings. However, he did mention that his frequent interactions with the prime minister during the autumn did not give him a different impression of their trust.
Stevens stated during the inquiry that top government officials often skipped attending emergency meetings led by Matt Hancock at the start of the pandemic.
The witness stated that the meetings were beneficial in bringing together representatives from various departments, agencies, and devolved administrations.
“Nevertheless, these gatherings may not have been as efficient as desired. They were quite sizable and when the health and social care secretary chaired them, other secretaries of state may have chosen to send their junior ministers instead of attending themselves.”