Covid Inquiry: UK came 'within hours' of running out of intensive care medicines, says Hancock

Matt Hancock made a number of admissions at the Covid Inquiry, signalling a catalogue of mistakes in the pandemic, as ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports

By Lucy McDaid, Westminster Producer The UK came "within hours" of running out of medicines for intensive care units during the coronavirus pandemic, Matt Hancock told the Covid-19 public Inquiry.

But giving evidence on Tuesday, the former health secretary argued the government's planning for a no-deal Brexit meant hospitals avoided running out completely.

During the three-hour session, Mr Hancock said he is "profoundly sorry" for every coronavirus death, adding it was a "colossal" failure to assume the spread couldn't be stopped.

The MP's main and repeated argument was that the UK and other western countries were too focused on responding to the consequences - such as whether there were enough "body bags" - and not focused enough on trying to prevent the transmission of Covid.

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock tells the UK's Covid-19 Inquiry he is 'profoundly sorry' for every death caused by the virus

Responding to Hugo Keith KC's characterisation of the Department for Health and Social Care as a "calamitous state of affairs", Mr Hancock said he bears full responsibility for the government's preparedness and admitted the UK's attitude towards planning was "completely wrong".

He told the inquiry: "The absolutely central problem with the planning in the UK was that the doctrine was wrong."

"The attitude, the doctrine of the UK was to plan for the consequences of a disaster," he added.

"Can we buy enough body bags? Where are we going to bury the dead? And that was completely wrong.

"Of course, it's important to have that in case you fail to stop a pandemic, but central to pandemic planning needs to be - how do you stop the disaster from happening in the first place? How do you suppress the virus?"

We were 'within hours' of running out of medicines in intensive care units during the pandemic, Matt Hancock tells the Covid-19 Inquiry

The UK must be prepared to hit a "pandemic hard", he added later, and western countries failed when it came to acknowledging the importance of immediate lockdowns.

The Covid-19 Inquiry, which is currently looking at the government's preparedness for a pandemic, has already heard from key witnesses that planning was primarily focused on a likely influenza breakout.

Mr Hancock denied this was a key failure and instead argued the "failure to plan" for immediate action as soon as coronavirus came to the UK was "a much bigger flaw in the strategy than the fact that it was targeted at the wrong disease".

He said there had been a lack of forward thinking about mandatory quarantine, shielding, social restrictions and border control, and it was "madness" that he had to "overrule" initial advice not to quarantine arrivals from Wuhan in China.

According to Mr Hancock, there was "no such thing" as mass contact tracing systems when the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, while the lack of ability to rollout testing in large numbers was "terrible".

Lorelei King, whose husband died during the pandemic, protests as Matt Hancock arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. Credit: PA

The former secretary of state, who took office at the Department of Health and Social Care in July 2018, also said he can appreciate why some people might find it hard to accept his apologies.

"But it is honest and heartfelt," he said, adding: "I'm not very good at talking about my emotions and how I feel. But that is honest and true.

"And all I can do is ensure that this inquiry gets to the bottom of it, and that for the future, we learn the right lessons, so that we stop a pandemic in its tracks much, much earlier."

On the preparedness of the adult social care sector, the Inquiry has already heard how this was sidelined to plan for a no-deal Brexit. Mr Hancock said it was "terrible" when asked whether the sector was prepared, but insisted the responsibility fell to local authorities and he "didn't have the levers" to act.

Going forward, he said, all health and social care settings should hold a mandatory amount of PPE, after it proved "incredibly difficult" to get supplies out during the pandemic.

'Of course we were aware of other infectious diseases', says Matt Hancock, as he explains why preparation for an influenza pandemic was prioritised over other health diseases

When asked by Mr Keith, lead counsel to the Inquiry, why he didn't focus on the issues of low PPE stockpiles for a non-influenza pandemic and a lack of mass testing when they were raised with him in 2018, Mr Hancock said: "The only answer I can give is because I was assured that we had the best system in place in the world.

"And because the system was working towards an approach to pandemic response, that was wrong. That's why it was built that way, and that flaw, that failure, went back years and years and was embedded in the entire system response."

He added: "There was no recommendation to resolve those problems that I was aware of."

Reassurances that the UK was one of the best-prepared countries for a pandemic were 'completely wrong', Matt Hancock tells the Covid-19 Inquiry

When asked what we knew about the pandemic preparedness plan when he became health secretary in 2018, Mr Hancock said he was assured there were plans in place, including having a "very significant stockpile of PPE". "And we did," he added.

He told the Inquiry: "The problem was that it was extremely hard to get it out fast enough when the crisis hit.

"I was told that we were good at developing tests, and indeed we were.

"We developed a test in the first few days after the genetic code of Covid-19 was published. "The problem was there was no plan in place to scale testing that we could execute.

"On antivirals, we had a stockpile of antivirals for a flu, but not for a coronavirus..."

The MP then said the World Health Organisation had assured the UK it was "the best place in the world" for preparedness, but, he told Mr Keith, "that turned out to be wrong".

Matt Hancock admits he bears 'full responsibility' for failings made in the UK's pandemic preparedness

When Mr Hancock arrived at the Inquiry in London, he walked past Lorelei King, a widow whose husband died with coronavirus in a care home in March 2020.

Ms King was waiting outside the Inquiry alongside other members of the campaign group Covid Families for Justice.

When he had finished giving evidence, Mr Hancock was confronted by other bereaved family members, one of them dressed as the Grim Reaper.

His appearance in front of the UK's Covid-19 Inquiry follows evidence sessions from former Prime Minister David Cameron and current Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

Later this week, the former First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, will also appear to give evidence.

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