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Cummings Staged ‘power Grab’ At Start Of Pandemic, Hancock Tells Covid Inquiry

Tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the UK had locked down three weeks earlier, Matt Hancock has told the Covid inquiry, as he described the operation of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street as undermined by a “culture of fear”.

The former health secretary said his staff were abused by Dominic Cummings and that Johnson’s then chief adviser attempted to exclude ministers and even Johnson himself from key decisions at the start of the pandemic, hampering the government’s response.

“It inculcated a culture of fear, whereas what we needed was a culture where everybody was brought to the table and given their heads to do their level best in a once-in-a-generation crisis,” said Hancock. “The way to lead in a crisis like this is to give people the confidence to do what they think needs to happen. And it caused the opposite of that.”

Hancock argued that in retrospect the ideal date for a first lockdown would have been three weeks earlier than the eventual date of 23 March 2020, saying this could have prevented about 90% of the death toll in the first Covid wave, or more than 30,000 lives.

Matt Hancock holding a Covid press conference in Downing Street in April 2020. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/n10 DOWNING STREET/EPA“With hindsight, the first moment we realistically could have cracked it was 2 March,” he said. “That’s the moment we should have done it, and it would have saved many, many lives.”

While repeatedly critical of Cummings, calling him “a malign actor” who spread misinformation, Hancock did not blame dysfunction in No 10 for the delay, saying that at the time the progress of the virus was unclear whereas the consequences of lockdown were “known and huge”.

Hancock nonetheless painted a vivid picture of personality clashes and what he termed “a power grab” by Cummings, also saying he was not told about the then chancellor’s Rishi Sunak’s flagship “Eat out to help out” scheme to subsidise restaurant meals in summer 2020 until the day it was announced.

The inquiry was shown messages between Hancock and Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, later that summer in which Hancock said the scheme should not be extended. It was, he wrote, “causing problems in our intervention areas – I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious”.

Hancock also came under intense and sometimes difficult questioning from Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry lead counsel, who challenged him to provide evidence for his claim that he urged Johnson to order a lockdown on 13 March 2020, and forced an admission that the claim of a “protective ring” around care homes had been misleading.

Describing the buildup to the pandemic, Hancock said that in February 2020 Cummings upended the usual emergency meetings system by setting up a daily meeting in his own office involving “a subset” of people.

Hancock said: “He didn’t invite any ministers. He didn’t regard ministers as a valuable contribution to any decision-making as far as I could see in the crisis or, indeed, any other time.” Cummings, he added, advised at the time that decisions “don’t need to go to the prime minister”. This structure actively hampered the response to the virus at the time, Hancock said.

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Matt Hancock accuses Dominic Cummings of creating ‘culture of fear’ at No 10 – videoIn other evidence to the inquiry, Hancock pushed back against criticisms that the health department he led in 2020 was chaotic and apt to overpromise, saying it was often just doing work other parts of government had neglected.

“From the middle of January [2020] we were effectively trying to raise the alarm, trying to wake up Whitehall to the scale of the problem,” he said. “Getting the machine at the centre of government up and running was incredibly hard and took a huge amount of effort.”

“We rubbed up against this deep unpleasantness at the centre,” Hancock added. “It was unhelpful in assuming that when anything was difficult or a challenge therefore there was somehow fault and blame.”

Keith challenged Hancock about his comment at a Covid press conference in mid-May 2020 that ministers had placed “a protective ring” around care homes from the start of the pandemic, which the former health secretary accepted was in retrospect misleading. “I was trying to simply summarise that we had taken action,” Hancock said. “I entirely understand why people feel strongly about this.”

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