Cummings staged ‘power grab’ at start of pandemic, Hancock tells Covid inquiry

Dominic Cummings created a “culture of fear” inside Downing Street and attempted to exclude ministers and even Boris Johnson from key decisions at the start of the pandemic, hampering the government’s response, Matt Hancock has told the Covid inquiry.

Hancock, who was the health secretary during most of the crisis, also argued that if the UK had gone into lockdown three weeks earlier than it did, 90% of the deaths in the first wave of the pandemic could have been avoided.

Describing the background to these decisions, Hancock said that Cummings, Johnson’s then chief adviser, had staged “essentially a power grab” in February 2020 by circumventing the government’s emergency response system with his own structure.

Cummings organised a meeting based around his own office every morning and invited “a subset” of the necessary people, but not all, Hancock said, and not including him.

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”.

Matt Hancock accuses Dominic Cummings of creating ‘culture of fear’ at No 10 – video

This system, which replaced the system of using Cobra emergency meetings and lasted until the establishment of a network of ministerial action groups, actively hampered the response to the virus at the time, Hancock said.

“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 described Cummings as “a malign actor” in No 10 who instigated the culture of fear by in effect forcing out Sajid Javid as chancellor in February 2020 in a row over special advisers, and had been abusive to people in the health department.

The former health secretary also argued that thousands more people died than was necessary because of delays to the first lockdown, while saying the decision to delay was understandable, given the progress of the virus was unknown whereas the consequences of lockdown were “known and huge”.

Hancock said: “With hindsight, the first moment we realistically could have cracked it was 2 March, three weeks earlier than we did. That’s the moment we should have done it, three weeks earlier, and it would have saved many, many lives.

“There’s a doubling rate at this point, estimated, every three to four days. We would have been six doublings ahead of where we were, which means that fewer than a tenth of the number of people would have died in the first wave.”

In 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 said. “It was unhelpful in assuming that when anything was difficult or a challenge therefore there was somehow fault and blame.”

Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, repeatedly pushed Hancock about whether he had incorrectly assured colleagues that his department had a plan in place for the pandemic, citing examples, such as a WhatsApp message to Cummings in January 2020, in which Hancock said “full plans” existed.

The inquiry also saw minutes from a cabinet meeting on 6 February 2020 when Hancock was quoted as saying: “The central point to make was that the government had a plan to deal with this issue.” Keith questioned Hancock about this, saying that a Covid-specific plan was not even commissioned until four days later. Hancock replied that he was referring to “a whole series of different plans”, including a 2011 plan for pandemic flu.