Matt Hancock tells inquiry there was ‘toxic culture’ in No 10 and he was ignored when he tried to raise alarm about Covid – live

Key events

During the evidence to the Covid inquiry earlier Hugo Keith KC presented a WhatsApp message from Matt Hancock on 23 January 2020 in which he said the DHSC had “full plans up to and including pandemic levels regularly prepped and refreshed”.

Exchanges from Hancock
Exchanges from Hancock Photograph: Covid inquiry

Sunak claims he is ‘not in hock to ideological zealots’ over climate crisis

Rishi Sunak has claimed this morning he is “not in hock to ideological zealots” over the climate crisis.

In a pooled clip for broadcasters, ahead of the Cop28 climate summit that he is attending, Sunak defended his government’s approach to net zero. He said:

We are a world leader when it comes to climate, that’s what the stats show. We’ve reduced carbon emissions in this country faster than any other major economy.

Our targets for the next few years are also more ambitious than any other major economy and because of that, I thought the right thing to do was to ensure that we get to net zero in a pragmatic and proportionate way that saves working families thousands of pounds.

I’m not in hock to ideological zealots on this topic. Of course we’re going to get to net zero, of course it’s important, but we can do that in a sensible way that saves people money and doesn’t burden them with extra costs.

Rishi Sunak speaking to a reporters University of Surrey in Guildford this morning.
Rishi Sunak speaking to a reporters University of Surrey in Guildford this morning. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AP
Helena Horton

Helena Horton

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents about half the managed land in England and Wales, is holding a conference today where Steve Barclay, the environment secretary, and Steve Reed, his Labour shadow, are for the first time making their pitches to rural businesses.

The new CLA president Victoria Vyvyan says the rural economy is being ignored by government and seemed unimpressed by Rishi Sunak’s announcement this week of a new national park. She told the landowners present:

Nobody – and this is not said lightly – who lives and works in the national landscape wants a new national park.

I think they need to radically review what constitutes an effective National Park Authority. I think they need to review how they fix its boundaries. And I think most of all, they need to consider how we can run dynamic 21st century businesses in a national park rather than condemning us to change beds and sell tea in Scotland, possibly with a penny and an occasional courtesy from the visitors. We want to be part of a dynamic economy.

The inquiry is pausing for a break until 11.20am.

No written evidence to support Hancock’s claim he told Johnson on 13 March 2020 to order lockdown, inquiry hears

Hancock claims that on Friday 13 March, the day after he sent the “better prepared” message (see 10.52am) and after he had changed his mind about the seriousness of the situation, he told Johnson the government should lock down.

Keith points out that Hancock does not mention this in his book, Pandemic Diaries. He suggests that Hancock would have wanted to mention something this significant.

There is a whole page on how you woke up for the dawn flight to Belfast … there was from the prime ministerial meeting, prime ministerial papers, a video call and according to your book you said: ‘I called the prime minister and told him we’d have to do some very rapid back-pedalling on the issue of herd immunity, then rang Patrick who promised to do his best to repair the damage.’

Telling the prime minister of this country for the first time that he had to call an immediate lockdown is surely worthy of some recollection, is it not?

Hancock claims that, when writing the book, he did not have full access to his papers. He says this fact come to light when he was researching his papers ahead of this inquiry.

Keith says Hancock says in Pandemic Diaries that the account it contains has been “meticulously pieced together” from formal papers, notes and WhatsApp messages. And he says the inquiry has seen no evidence that Hancock did tell Johnson on 13 March there should be a lockdown.

He asks Hancock if he is sure that that is what he told Johnson.

Hancock replies: “I can remember it.”

He says the evidence came to light when he was preparing for the inquiry.

Updated at 06.14 EST

Hancock claimed UK ‘better prepared than other countries’ for Covid on 12 March 2020, inquiry hears

Keith shows a WhatsApp message from Hancock to Dominic Cummings on 12 March 2020 in which Hancock said the UK was “better prepared than other countries”.

WhatsApp message from Hancock on 12 March 2020
WhatsApp message from Hancock on 12 March 2020. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Keith asks Hancock why he said that. Keith says:

By 12 March, you were surely aware that we were not better prepared than other countries. There was – you’ve acknowledged it already – no scaled up test trace isolate system, beyond the first few cases. There was no effective means of infection control. There was no border plans or quarantine system in place. You knew there was sustained community transmission in the United Kingdom by this date, and you knew that the infection fatality rate was 1% – 1% of all infected people would die. Why did you say we are better prepared than other countries?

Hancock says this was a message about communications.

But he also says that the following day, on Friday 13 March, he changed his view. He says his message came at a moment that was the “end of the road” for this approach.

UPDATE: PA Media reports:

Asked whether he had a responsibility to push harder to warn British citizens that a “wall of death” was coming, Hancock said: “In my public communications you will know that I had at that point been explaining that we might have to do that, yes. But I’m also a team player and the government position was ‘not yet.’”

Updated at 06.06 EST

Q: You must have known the government was failing to resond speedily and well.

Hancock says in many cases people had arguments for doing what they were doing.

There was also this “toxic culture”, he says. But that was more of a problem later.

He says people asked if he really wanted to tell people, early on, that it might be necessary to shut down whole cities. He did think that, he says.

Hancock dismisses claims he was over-confident, saying he had to keep system ‘driving forward’

Helen MacNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary, said you showed “nuclear” levels of confidence, Keith says. Is that fair?

Hancock says he reacted in different ways with different people.

In trusted environments, he was self-critical, he says.

But he says he also had to drive the system forward.

And he says no one complained about him being over-confident at the time. He goes on:

I was going in and saying we absolutely must do this. And there was a huge amounts of uncertainty and a huge amount of worry. And I basically felt it was my professional duty to try to keep going through, to keep driving forward.

UPDATE: Hancock said:

There was a huge amount of uncertainty and a huge amount of worry and I basically felt it was my professional duty to try to keep going, to try to keep driving forward.”

Of course I understand now that some people reacted in the way that they did, but it was a time of enormous uncertainty and a time when I just felt we needed to keep driving this system forward.

Updated at 06.07 EST

Keith shows an exchange of messages between Hancock and Boris Johnson in early March.

Exchanges between Hancock and Johnson in early March
Exchanges between Hancock and Johnson in early March Photograph: Covid inquiry

Keith suggests that, at this point Hancock should have been asking for more help from No 10.

Hancock says by this time No 10 was fully engaged. Johnson had already chaired a Cobra. And he says the exchanges show him asking for a whole national effort on Covid.

Hancock says he was trying to ‘raise the alarm’ about Covid early, but ignored by No 10

Hancock is now deploying the defence previewed in the Observer on Sunday. (See 9.58am.)

He says from the middle of January the DHSC was “trying to effectively raise the alarm”. He says:

We were trying to wake up Whitehall to the scale of the problem and this wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be addressed only from the health department. Non-pharmaceutical interventions cannot be put in place by a health department. A health department can’t shut schools. It should have been grasped and led from the centre of government earlier. And you’ve seen evidence that repeatedly the department and I tried to make this happen.

And we were on occasions blocked, and at other times our concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been until the very end of February.

So for instance, the very first time I tried to call a Cobra [a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee] I was blocked – ultimately only for 48 hours – because I then went to get other voices to call for a Cobra. And it happened.

Hancock claims diary evidence showing DHSC was seen by No 10 as chaotic shows there was ‘toxic culture’ in Downing Street

Keith shows three extracts from Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary criticising the DHSC.

This one, from June 2020, talks about the “massive internal operational mess” inside DHSC.

Extract from Vallance’s diary
Extract from Vallance’s diary. Photograph: Covid inquiry

This one, from July 2020, quotes Sedwill talking about the “clear lack of grip” in DHSC.

Extract from Vallance’s diary
Extract from Vallance’s diary. Photograph: Covid inquiry

And this one, from August 2020, quotes an email from DHSC describing it as “ungovernable”.

Extract from Vallance’s diary
Extract from Vallance’s diary. Photograph: Covid inquiry

Hancock says some of Vallance’s diary entries were written after the event.

Keith pushes back at this. He says the vast majority of Vallance’s diary entries were written on the day. His diary was more contemporaneous than Hancock’s, he says.

Hancock goes on:

Did everything go right? Of course it didn’t.

He says it was natural for the Cabinet Office to be “sceptical” of government departments.

But he claims these entries were illustrative of the “toxic culture” in Downing Street, which was unhelpful. There was a desire to attribute fault and blame, he says.

Updated at 05.49 EST

Hancock says none of his predecessors had had to deal with a pandemic like this.

Keith says Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary at the time, said the Department of Health and Social Care was not resourced to deal with this. Sedwill said it was “under par”, Keith says.

Hancock says Sedwill did not use the phrase under par.

But it was clear the DHSC would have more to do, Hancock says.

Keith says Hancock has provided a new witness statement to the inquiry which is 176 pages long. That will be published when he has finished giving evidence.

Hancock also submitted a supplementary statement, addressing some further questions, he says.

And Keith says they have read his Pandemic Diaries, the book written with Isabel Oakeshott. Keith says this was not a contemporaneous diary, but instead a book written after the event describing what happened day by day.

Lady Hallett, the inquiry chair, starts by apologising to Hancock for the fact that he has had to give evidence more than once.

He also appeared during module one, when the inquiry was looking at pandemic preparedness.

Here is our report of that hearing in June.

Updated at 05.12 EST

Matt Hancock starts giving evidence to Covid inquiry

The hearing is starting. Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, is taking the oath. And he’s going to be questioned by Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel for the inquiry.

Updated at 05.05 EST

Boris Johnson to give evidence to Covid inquiry all Wednesday and Thursday next week, inquiry says

Boris Johnson is due to give evidence to the Covid inquiry for two days next week, on Wednesday and Thursday, the inquiry has announced. He is the only witness scheduled for next week.

Schedule for next week
Schedule for next week Photograph: Covid inquiry

Dominic Cummings’ list of examples of when he says Hancock lied to No 10 about Covid

No witness has been more critical of Matt Hancock than Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser. In paragraph 508 of his witness statement Cummings gives a long list of times when he claims Hancock lied to No 10 about Covid arrangements.

Extract from Dominic Cummings' witness statement
Extract from Dominic Cummings’ witness statement Photograph: Covid inquiry

What previous witnesses to Covid inquiry have said about Hancock

I was going to compile my own guide to the critical comments about Matt Hancock made by previous witnesses to the inquiry but, frankly, the list is so long that it would take quite a while. Luckily Dan Bloom and Noah Keate have down their own version for Politico’s London Playbook.

Hancock must now answer the Murder on the Orient Express-style procession of senior figures who’ve done him in. Greatest hits include Dominic Cummings calling him a “proven liar” … Helen MacNamara saying he’d say things in meetings that “we’d discover [weren’t] in fact the case” … Patrick Vallance saying he had a “habit” of saying things “without evidence to back them up” … Mark Sedwill texting that he needed removing to “save lives and protect the NHS” … Simon Case name-checking him in the government’s “weak team” … Manchester mayor Andy Burnham saying Hancock knew Tier 3 restrictions wouldn’t work when he imposed them … Simon Stevens saying he wanted to decide “who should live and who should die” … and Chris Wormald saying he “overpromised” (but not that he lied).

John Stevens at the Mirror has also got a longer version of the same list.

Updated at 04.37 EST

Matt Hancock appears at Covid inquiry

Good morning. With the possible exception of Boris Johnson, no one has received as much criticism from witnesses giving evidence to the Covid inquiry as Matt Hancock, who was health secretary for the first 15 months of the pandemic, including all three lockdowns. He has a lot to answer for and the inquiry has set aside a day and a half for his evidence.

As Toby Helm reported in the Observer at the weekend, Hancock’s allies believe he will hit back by arguing that his efforts to get No 10 to take Covid more seriously in early 2020 were ignored. Toby says:

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 that the former health secretary is unfairly being made a scapegoat by civil servants and scientists during the official inquiry 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 senior staff working for the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, because they believed Hancock was mainly seeking publicity and exaggerating the dangers, the insiders say.

One with detailed knowledge of events at the time told the Observer: “The DoH was pushing really hard and the Cabinet Office and Downing Street were saying :‘Look, we’ve just had an election and we have got to get Brexit done: could you and your pandemic just fuck off and stop irritating us.’ They totally trivialised it and did not want to engage.”

I will be focusing on Hancock’s evidence for most of the day, but other politics will get a look-in too. Here is the agenda for the day.

Morning: Rishi Sunak is on a visit in Guildford.

9am: Gordon Brown, the former Labour PM, speaks at a Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Pay conference in Edinburgh.

10am: Matt Hancock gives evidence to the Covid inquiry. The hearing is scheduled to run all day and continue tomorrow.

10am: Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister who now leads the Alba party, is holding a press conference.

11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

If you want to contact me, do try the “send us a message” feature. You’ll see it just below the byline – on the left of the screen, if you are reading on a laptop or a desktop. This is for people who want to message me directly. I find it very useful when people message to point out errors (even typos – no mistake is too small to correct). Often I find your questions very interesting, too. I can’t promise to reply to them all, but I will try to reply to as many as I can, either in the comments below the line; privately (if you leave an email address and that seems more appropriate); or in the main blog, if I think it is a topic of wide interest.

Updated at 04.36 EST