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Sunak would have put ‘enormous pressure’ on Johnson – Covid inquiry

Former health secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Former health secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Rishi Sunak would have put “enormous pressure” on Boris Johnson not to have an autumn lockdown – while school closures could have been avoided, the Covid inquiry has been told.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock was questioned by Hugo Keith KC over the tier system for managing Covid spread and the point it was decided a second national lockdown was needed in 2020.

He expressed the view that, with hindsight, schools may not have needed to close in January 2021 if action had been taken to control virus spread much earlier.

A WhatsApp exchange from October 2020 between Mr Hancock and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case showed how Mr Hancock was pressing for information from a meeting on October 30 that he claims he was “blocked” from attending.

It suggested Mr Sunak – then chancellor – was in favour of tighter controls when it came to schools, rather than the closure of all shops.

Mr Hancock wrote: “When then? Rishi is in the room – contrary to the stupid rules – so the PM will be under enormous pressure to not do enough once again.”

Mr Case replied: “I don’t know what is happening in the room – I am 90 miles away.

“Rishi has already resigned himself to the choice ahead – I spoke to him earlier.

“He is relatively open on regional or national (not least because regional is so wide that impact is pretty similar to national now).

“His only question (and a fair one) is about nonessential retail – where obviously we have no evidence of transmission.

“He thinks better to do something in secondary schools (where we know transmission takes place) instead of closing all shops (where we know it doesn’t seem to).”

Mr Hancock told the inquiry that if the Government had acted more swiftly in the autumn of 2020, school closures could have been avoided in January 2021.

He said that “on reflection and with hindsight”, he thought “if we’d have taken action sooner, in September of 2020, then we might, for instance, have avoided the need to close schools, which in the end we had to as cases were so high by January”.

He added: “In the November lockdown we didn’t shut schools, and other than the emergence of the Kent variant, it did get R below one.

“So it shows the argument I was making then, sadly, turned out to be accurate, which is if you don’t lock down early, you have a tougher lockdown with more economic damage.”

The inquiry was also told Mr Hancock was “very worried” about “rearguard action” when pushing for more stringent measures in autumn 2020.

Asked by Mr Keith what he meant, Mr Hancock said: “I was referring to the prime minister making a decision in principle to take action that was necessary to save lives and then others arguing strongly against it afterwards.”

He said he did not know who the “others” were because he “wouldn’t have been party to those conversations”.

The inquiry further heard that Mr Johnson was “not willing” to go further in terms of national restrictions at that time.

In a WhatsApp exchange between Mr Hancock and Mr Case on October 9 2020, Mr Hancock wrote: “We can’t just give up in fighting the virus. We have to stop it regionally now or we will be in full national lockdown in a fortnight.”

Mr Case replied: “PM not willing to go further in terms of national mandation.

“Happy to go further if local leaders want to go further. But PM feels your Cabinet colleagues and party won’t support more as national imposition.”

Mr Hancock replied: “It’s not national imposition it’s local. What’s changed overnight? When can I make the case for action – this won’t work and we will massively regret it.”

In a witness statement to the inquiry, the former health secretary also expressed frustration over the tier system for controlling virus spread, saying: “I was in despair that we had announced a policy that we knew would not work.”

Elsewhere, Mr Hancock accepted “transgressions” in his personal life may have impacted the public’s confidence in rules put in place to stop the spread of Covid.

Mr Hancock resigned as health secretary in June 2021 after footage emerged of him kissing aide Gina Coladangelo.

Mr Keith said to Mr Hancock: “I’m sure you acknowledge the incredible offence and upset that was caused by that revelation.”

Mr Keith asked if he thought it impacted the “public’s propensity to adhere to rules”.

Mr Hancock replied: “Well, what I’d say is that the lesson for the future is very clear.

“And it is important that those who make the rules abide by them, and I resigned in order to take accountability for my failure to do.”

Mr Keith said the resignation “must have been a reflection of the fact that you understood the importance of, or the deleterious consequences of, rule-breaking or guidance-breaking on public confidence in the public at large”.

Mr Hancock replied: “Yes.”

In other revelations, Mr Hancock suggested to the inquiry that he found local political leaders in Liverpool easier to deal with than those in Manchester.

He praised the former mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, for his “spirit of collaboration” during negotiations over the tier system, adding: “Joe Anderson – unfortunately no longer with us – he was incredibly supportive.”

Mr Hancock further revealed that his mother still attends a long Covid clinic.

Mr Keith said Mr Hancock’s witness statement to the probe “makes plain” that “from an early stage” he asked NHS England to consider the issue of long Covid.

Mr Hancock said: “I was alive to it from before the infection reached our shores.

“(England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir) Chris Whitty raised the concern about the potential of some kind of post-viral fatigue syndrome, which happens with other viruses as well.

“And then, after the first peak, I was acutely aware of it, not least because members of my family were affected by long Covid, including my mother, who still attends a long Covid clinic.

“So this was very close to my heart.”