Matt Hancock and his officials bombarded Downing Street with early warnings about Covid-19 but were treated with ridicule and contempt, according to senior Whitehall figures who believe the former Health Secretary is being unfairly scapegoated by officials at the official meeting and scientists. research into the pandemic.
Attempts by the Department of Health in mid-to-late January 2020 to raise the alarm were dismissed out of hand by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior staff, who believed that Hancock was primarily seeking publicity and exaggerating the dangers. say insiders.
Someone with detailed knowledge of the events of that time related the Observer: “The DoH pushed really hard and the Cabinet Office and Downing Street said, ‘Look, we’ve just had an election and we’ve got to get Brexit done: can you and your pandemic just fuck off and stop annoying us.’ They totally downplayed it and didn’t want to deal with it.”
Hancock will appear before the Covid inquiry on Thursday and Friday and is expected to make a concerted effort to defend his reputation after weeks in which he has come under fire for being dishonest, incompetent and more interested in self-promotion than public health. tackling the spread. of the coronavirus.
Allies of the former health minister – while accepting that his behavior was often irritating and that he sometimes appeared overconfident – hope he will take the opportunity to challenge what they say is a semi-orchestrated attempt by others to to deflect blame from oneself. and hide their initial slowness to respond.
Referring to several officials – including Johnson’s close adviser Dominic Cummings, former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill and Number 10 permanent secretary Simon Case – the source said “those around Johnson” knew they were too late to see the Covid danger. They realized that because many people found Hancock annoying, they could usefully turn him into a cheater: “Matt was annoying, yes, but the idea that he wasn’t trusted or seen as dishonest at the time, that just wasn’t Like this. WHERE.”
Sedwill has already admitted to the inquiry that around January 21, 2020, he received a request from Hancock’s DoH for a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to discuss the spread of Covid and its threat to the UK.
“I felt that a Cobra that was perhaps convened primarily for communications purposes was not wise,” Sedwill said, making clear that he believed Hancock was raising concerns to get himself in the media spotlight. “Two days later I was told there was a real intergovernmental basis for it and I agreed,” Sedwill said.
WhatsApp messages from Sedwill also reveal that he told Johnson to sack the ‘lying’ Health Secretary to ‘save lives and protect the NHS’. Sedwill later claimed this was a joke in a WhatsApp message to Case.
Criticism of Hancock has also come from the most experienced scientists. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific officer, told the inquiry last week that Hancock repeatedly got ahead of himself and said things for which there was no evidence.
“I think he had a habit of saying things that he had no basis for, and he said them too enthusiastically and too early, without the evidence to back them up, and then had to backtrack on them days later,” Vallance said. . “I don’t know how much of that was kind of over-enthusiasm versus intentional – I think a lot of it was over-enthusiasm.”
Previously, Helen MacNamara, another senior Downing Street official, had told the inquiry that Hancock “regularly” told people things that they later discovered were untrue and that Number 10 had a “lack of confidence” in what he said. actually happened’.
Hancock will undoubtedly come under the most pressure for his repeated claims in May 2020 that he had put a ‘ring of protection’ around care homes, by which he meant that when patients left hospitals for homes, they were Covid-free goods.