What we learned from Matt Hancock's day at the Covid Inquiry

The former health secretary told the 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 ITV News Westminster Producer, Lucy McDaid

Matt Hancock's highly anticipated second appearance at the Covid-19 Inquiry unveiled a behind-the-scenes look at a "toxic" Number 10 embroiled with "deep unpleasantness".

The former health secretary sensationally quit in 2021 after he was exposed for breaking social distancing rules in an office affair with his aide.

He has been the subject of fierce criticism by a number of key witnesses at the Inquiry so far, setting the stage for a day of headline-making revelations from the stand.

What were the key takeaways?

  • Hancock denies 'lying' allegations

Dominic Cummings, a key figure in No. 10 during the height of Covid, previously said Mr Hancock "lied his way through" the pandemic and "killed people".

Boris Johnson's former chief adviser even posted on social media site X while Mr Hancock was giving evidence on Thursday, accusing his former colleague of "flat out lying".

But inside the Inquiry, lead counsel Hugo Keith said: "The inquiry has no interest in the truth of the allegations... it is impossible for the inquiry to resolve them.

"But the fact that the prime minister, his chief adviser, the deputy cabinet secretary, the cabinet secretary, all questioned your candour, and in large part fitness for the job is a vital issue to any examination of how well the system responded.”

Asked how it could be that so many thought he was a liar, Mr Hancock replied: “I was not. You will note that there’s no evidence from anybody who I worked with in the department or the health system who supported those false allegations.”

Mr Hancock attempted to put to bed the claims, saying he would be "very happy to write with an explanation of each and every one" of the allegations, insisting they are "not true".

Matt Hancock says allegations he was unfit for the job during Covid are 'not true'

  • Asymptomatic transmission: 'My single greatest regret'

Not over-ruling scientists on advice over asymptomatic transmission was Mr Hancock's "single greatest regret", he also told the Inquiry.

In his witness statement, he said asymptomatic transmission - spreading the virus without symptoms - should have been a "baseline assumption" when Covid first emerged.

He said Public Health England (PHE) was "adamant" in January 2020 that people without symptoms could not pass on the virus, and felt like a "broken record" when he kept pushing the body on the issue.

"This was a deep frustration to me at the time and, as I said, my single greatest regret, with hindsight, was not pushing on this harder and ultimately not overruling the formal scientific advice that I was receiving," Mr Hancock said when asked how he felt in February 2020.

'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

  • Dominic Cummings was a 'malign actor' who created a 'culture of fear' in No. 10

Boris Johnson's former chief adviser, and the man most well-known for a lockdown-breaching 52-mile-round trip to Barnard Castle, is one of Mr Hancock's most vocal critics.

It's therefore perhaps no surprise that Mr Hancock didn't sing his praises when giving evidence on Thursday, describing him as a "malign actor" who created a "culture of fear".

Mr Cummings' alleged behaviour hindered the government's pandemic response, Mr Hancock claimed, repeatedly describing the atmosphere as "toxic" and "deeply unpleasant".

  • 'Many, many lives' could have been saved with an earlier lockdown

It's not the first time the Covid-19 Inquiry has heard that an earlier lockdown could have saved lives, but Mr Hancock is perhaps the most significant figure so far to admit it.

When questioned on the government's response to coronavirus, Mr Hancock said the first lockdown should have been called three weeks earlier, on Monday March 2, 2020.

"So I defend the actions that were taken by the government at the time," he said, before adding: "Having obviously thought about this and reflected on this a huge deal over the last few years, the first moment we realistically could have really cracked it was on March 2, three weeks earlier than we did."

  • He tried to 'raise the alarm' and 'wake up Whitehall' to the scale of the problem

Defending his early response to the virus, Mr Hancock repeatedly defended the work of the Department of Health and instead blamed central government.

"From the middle of January, we were trying to effectively raise the alarm,” he told the Inquiry. “We were trying to wake up Whitehall to the scale of the problem."

Mr Hancock said the probe has seen evidence that he and his department “repeatedly” tried to “make this happen”. He added: “We were on occasions blocked and at other times, I would say our concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been until the very end of February.”

Mr Keith cited “repeated references” heard by the Inquiry that the-then health secretary was “desperate to own and lead” in early 2020 and “kept too much in the DHSC". Asked if this suggests that "the DHSC failed to tell central government how bad it was", Mr Hancock replied that is “completely the wrong way around”.

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

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