Covid Inquiry: 'Many lives' could have been saved by earlier lockdown, Matt Hancock says

The former health secretary told the Covid-19 Inquiry his department was trying to 'wake up Whitehall' to the seriousness of the virus in early 2020. ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks and Political Editor Robert Peston report

Words by Lucy McDaid, ITV News Westminster Producer

Matt Hancock has said "many, many lives" could have been saved if the government called the first coronavirus lockdown three weeks earlier.

In his eagerly awaited second appearance before the Covid-19 Inquiry, Mr Hancock also said the "toxic" culture in Downing Street hampered the government's response to the virus.

The former health secretary claimed he tried to "raise the alarm" of the seriousness of Covid-19 and tried to "wake up Whitehall" to the scale of the problem in early 2020.

Some of his biggest blows were dealt to Boris Johnson's former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who he claimed was a "malign actor" who created a "culture of fear" in No. 10.

The Inquiry is currently taking evidence as part of its second module on core UK decision-making and political governance.

Asked about the government's early response to Covid-19, the former health secretary said that "with hindsight", tougher restrictions should have been introduced on March 2, 2020, three weeks before the first lockdown was announced.

"I defend the actions that were taken by the government at the time knowing what we did, but with hindsight that's the moment we should have done it," he said, before adding: "It would have saved many, many lives".

The now backbench MP, who ran the Department of Health at the height of the pandemic, denied his team had a "clear lack of grip", instead arguing it was working harder than it should have been because central government was too "slow getting going".

"From the middle of January, we were trying to effectively raise the alarm,” Mr Hancock said.

"We were trying to wake up Whitehall to the scale of the problem. And this wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be addressed only from the health department – non-pharmaceutical interventions cannot be put in place by a health department."

He later said his department was often "blocked" and "our concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been until the very end of February".

'Because the rest of Whitehall was slow getting going, we had to get up there and do it', Matt Hancock tells the UK Covid-19 Inquiry

Mr Hancock resigned as health secretary in June 2021 after he was found to have breached social distancing guidance by kissing his aide, Gina Coladangelo.

He also told the Inquiry that his "single greatest regret" is that he didn't push harder against early advice on asymptomatic transmission. The former health secretary claimed he had a "significant amount of anecdotal evidence" in early 2020 to suggest people without symptoms passing on the virus would be an issue.

"My single greatest regret with hindsight was not pushing on this harder and ultimately not overruling the formal scientific advice I was receiving," he said.

Boris Johnson himself admitted it was one of the biggest "false assumptions" of the pandemic, saying in March 2021 "there are probably many things that we wish that we’d known and many things that we wish we’d done differently at the time".

'It is my single greatest regret with hindsight' - Matt Hancock tells the Covid Inquiry he wishes he over-ruled the early science on asymptomatic transmission

Mr Hancock also came down heavily on a key figure behind the scenes of the pandemic - Mr Johnson's chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.

Mr Cummings is probably most well-known in the public eye for his lockdown-breaching trip to Barnard Castle with his family during lockdown.

According to Mr Hancock, Mr Cummings was to blame for a "culture of fear" in central government, even leading the former chancellor Sajid Javid to resign, he told the Inquiry.

Mr Javid, who resigned in February 2020, admitted earlier this week that he quit Cabinet as a result of Mr Cummings, who he claimed was "running the government".

Defending himself on social media site X on Thursday, Mr Cummings hit back and accused Mr Hancock of "flat out lying".

These accusations were put to Mr Hancock on Thursday, who responded saying they were "false allegations" that are "not true".

It was also revealed on Thursday that Mr Hancock was with leading scientists in not finding out about Rishi Sunak's Eat Out To Help Out Scheme before it was due to be announced.

By the time he found out, it was a "done deal", he told the Inquiry.

Mr Sunak, who served as chancellor during the pandemic, created the scheme to boost the economy, giving customers 50% off the cost of food and non-alcoholic drinks.

"I didn’t know about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme until the Cabinet meeting on the morning of its announcement," Mr Hancock said. It later came out that he argued "very strongly" against the extension of the scheme in late summer, having already expressed caution in WhatsApp messages over its impact on cases.

Mr Hancock will continue giving evidence to the Inquiry on Friday, with the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson scheduled to appear on Wednesday and Thursday next week.

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