Allies claim Hancock sounded alarm over early lifting of Covid restrictions

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was calling on the government to take Covid more seriously as early as January last year, his allies have claimed, as he prepares to give his full response to explosive accusations over his handling of the pandemic.

Hancock is set to undergo hours of questioning before MPs on Thursday after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former senior adviser, said that the health secretary should have been fired on up to 20 separate occasions for various Covid failings. Cummings’s claim that Hancock misled the prime minister over sending untested hospital patients back to care homes – an allegation he denies – is set to be a key focus of the probe.

However, with a highly pressurised grilling in prospect, insiders sympathetic to Hancock said that he had regularly been one of the cabinet ministers urging most caution on the lifting of Covid restrictions – and had also been calling for the government’s Cobra emergency committee to meet from very early in 2020. They said Hancock had been pushing for quarantine for travellers from China to the UK before official advice supported the idea – when others in government were suggesting they should be allowed to travel home immediately by train.

It has also emerged that, by Friday night, Cummings had missed a deadline set by the joint committee overseeing the hearing to submit emails, notes and other material to support his damning claims against the health secretary. Relevant material could yet be submitted this weekend.

Hancock’s allies, who were stunned by the “deeply personal” attacks made by Cummings, believe that both this week’s hearing and the forthcoming public inquiry will show him to be among those in government advocating for the most caution.

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“[Hancock] has basically been quite pro-restrictions,” said one. “He’s been pushing ‘let’s be slow to open up’. He was also asking questions on borders and foreign travel. On the big strategic decisions, there actually wasn’t a whole load of difference between what Dom wanted and what Matt wanted.

Cummings: Hancock should have been sacked for 'criminal, disgraceful behaviour' – video
Cummings: Hancock should have been sacked for ‘criminal, disgraceful behaviour’ – video

“He was warning about Covid in mid-January, when some thought he was just exaggerating the whole thing. He was pushing to have Cobra meetings in the first place and he was leading in meetings, advocating action across government.”

Amid rumours that Hancock could be moved in the next cabinet reshuffle, other allies said that it simply was not the case that a different health secretary would have handled the major Covid issues radically differently. “I refuse to believe that a different secretary of state would have got PPE into a better place quicker than [Hancock] did,” said one. “I refuse to believe that a different secretary of state would’ve got testing into a better place. And I refuse to believe that a different secretary of state would’ve got vaccines in a better place. I think Matt will be shown to have made the best decisions he could with the information and the options he had at the time.”

The committee has been keen to see any evidence Cummings has for his claims. Foremost among them is his charge that Hancock told the prime minister that all patients would be tested for Covid before returning to care homes. It has now been established that an unknown proportion of 25,000 patients were discharged to care homes without a test in the crucial period between mid-March and mid-April, despite a plea from care bosses that this presented too much of a risk. Hancock has already said that the only commitment he made was that such testing would be done as soon as capacity allowed.

The inquiry is a joint investigation by parliament’s health and social care committee and science and technology committee. While Hancock will be quizzed about decisions taken last year, he will also be asked to explain whether the Delta variant of Covid, which originated in India, will affect the roadmap out of lockdown.

He could also face questions over alleged cronyism after it emerged that he failed to declare a stake in a family company that won an NHS contract, although a government spokesperson insisted at the time that Hancock had “acted entirely properly”. Concerns have also been raised over how his former neighbour was supplying the government with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid tests despite having no previous experience in the field.



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