The country’s most senior civil servant wanted Matt Hancock to be sacked as health secretary.
Mr Hancock has received repeated criticism at the Covid-19 inquiry, with Lord Sedwill the latest official to express serious concerns about the former minister’s “candour” amid his handling of the pandemic.
The former Cabinet secretary said that he did not formally advise Boris Johnson to sack Mr Hancock but the prime minister would have been “under no illusions” about his feelings.
He conceded that it was “clearly damaging” that multiple officials had lost confidence in the health secretary during an emergency such as a pandemic.
The inquiry heard that in one WhatsApp exchange with the permanent secretary at No 10 Simon Case – who is the current Cabinet Secretary – Lord Sedwill joked it was necessary to remove Mr Hancock to “save lives and protect the NHS”.
He told Lady Hallett’s inquiry that the remark was a play on the pandemic-era slogan and was an example of “gallows humour”.
“I had raised my concerns with the prime minister. That was not intended for him to remove Mr Hancock but to take a grip on the issue.”
He said he did not use the word “sack” with the prime minister but did in a WhatsApp exchange with Mr Case.
Lord Sedwill, who stepped down as Cabinet secretary in September 2020, was told that Mr Johnson has said in his witness statement that he did not have concerns about Mr Hancock.
Lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith read from the witness statement: “I did not have any concerns regarding the performance of any Cabinet minister including Matt Hancock.”
“I do not think that I received any advice from Sir Mark Sedwill that Matt should be removed.”
The peer said he did not provide any formal advice to sack Mr Hancock but told the hearing Mr Johnson “would have been under no illusions as to my view about what was best”.
In an earlier hearing, top Department of Health civil servant Sir Christopher Wormald told the inquiry that it was a “very small number of people” who said that Mr Hancock “was actually telling untruths”.
He argued Mr Hancock believed it was important to be “optimistic and aspirational”.
Mr Hancock’s spokesman said: “Mr Hancock has supported the inquiry throughout and will respond to all questions when he gives his evidence.”