Matt Hancock’s session in front of the Covid Inquiry: some jaw-dropping admissions

Matt Hancock. This is not a still from the Inquiry

Editor’s comment: Apologies for the duplication of text in places where we have had to use the tweet to capture the video. It was too good and informative a thread to pass up because of technical challenges, so it is a bit of a hybrid.

So, Hancock’s first appearance at the Covid Inquiry did not disappoint. I will share the critical moments below.

But first, it is clear that his entire justification for the admitted calamitous response rests on one point, and it is a fabricated argument…

Now, I am not suggesting Hancock intentionally fabricated this argument. Indeed I think he genuinely believes his post-hoc justification for why he failed in his post. Indeed, I am sure it helps shield him from the gravity of his failures. It is simply that it is not true. 

Hancock’s central point made throughout (to the irritation of the King’s Council. KC) was that there was a critical “doctrinal flaw”. That is, he says, the assumption made in all pandemic preparedness that once community transmission was reached then you could not “stop” the pandemic. 

He uses this as a means of explanation for failing to act early and decisively (which he and the Inquiry rightly identify as one of the most critical failures of the UK pandemic response).

But he is confusing the endpoint of eradication with the endpoint of maximal suppression. 

Many nations adopted a maximal suppression approach. Indeed most countries that had the resources to (and some that didn’t) tried to drive the rate of transmission down as much as possible at the very start of the pandemic. Indeed, this is BASIC public health outbreak strategy. 

When there is an outbreak there are three basic tenets of a response:
1. Find the sick (tests, symptom profiles, tracing)
2. Treat the sick
3. Stop others from getting sick (isolation, PPE, etc…) 

This approach (maximal suppression) was entirely open and on the table when Covid first hit the UK in Feb 2020. Indeed, it was the WHO guidelines and it was the approach of most countries that had already seen Covid.

It was the norm to suppress aggressively at the start.

Hancock’s entire contention, and one that the other politicians have eluded to already (perhaps aided by some scientists trying to obfuscate their initial incorrect views), was that to maximally suppress the virus was some grand idea that had never been considered before 2020. 

He draws this (what I am sure is a comforting conclusion for him) from the acceptance that once a flu pandemic starts spreading through the community it cannot be stopped.

Sadly, the Covid Inquiry did not (as yet) challenge him on this…stopped is not the same as suppressed. 

He does though concede that maximal suppression until vaccines and treatments were available was the correct play. A play which most countries attempted to do. Initially, the UK did not! 

The importance of this cannot be understated. It was the failure to act normally and instead to act exceptionally that led to massive loss of life, disability, and eventually to much stricter and LONGER lockdowns, greater economic impacts, social impacts, prolonged NHS waits, etc. 

Hancock goes on to suggest we should have locked down earlier and harder. He misses the point. Had we continued with normal public health practices then the viral spread would have been much more limited and we may have avoided lockdowns (although with very poor NHS capacity that seems v. unlikely) but, certainly, we would have only needed short, sharp and probably localised lockdowns of perhaps a couple of weeks.

Instead, the decision not to follow standard public health outbreak protocols (or WHO guidelines or other nations) led to brutal lockdowns.

It is his entire argument throughout. I suspect this will form the basis of much of the govt defence too. It simply doesn’t stack up. It was the UK (and US and Brazil) who broke away from normal practice and their people suffered. We need to know why!

June 28

Yesterday, we examined Hancock’s central argument to the Covid Inquiry: “No one said you could stop a pandemic”

Ironically, his unwavering confidence that this was his ‘get out of jail’ excuse led to a spectacular witness statement with jaw-dropping admissions.

Here are the big ones: 

First, let’s look at a very clear and catastrophic failure…the failure to prepare Adult Social Care

KC points out the illogic in Hancock’s answer: his dept had identified the vulnerability of care homes in 2016 but Hancock says not his responsibility to sort it out. 

These are the activities that were stopped due to Brexit…

They include “healthcare surge capacity” and “adult social care”.

And even some of those meant to continue did not – Pandemic Preparedness Committee was supposed to meet 6-8 weeks but it didn’t meet for an entire year.

Some things may have been learned though.

Hancock does state very clearly that:

  • the NHS runs too hot, too close to capacity;
  • and that the NHS runs “incredibly tight” and it’s “incredibly efficient”;
  • and we spend considerably less on healthcare than similar countries.

From a Tory ex-Health Minister.

Next to Exercise Cygnus, which was a simulation for a SARS virus hitting the UK. Out of 22 recommendations, only eight were completed.

Yes, Brexit hit here, too!

But it doesn’t matter, because Professor Hancock doesn’t think they would have helped anyway. 

We see him fully stuck on this argument that ‘no one said you could stop a pandemic’, so nothing else matters. In fact, you could suppress until vaccines, and it was recommended by WHO that you did, and other countries actually did. This line of argument won’t end well. 

Buckle up for this one and try not to break your computer or phone…

Matt thinks it’s ironic…

KC reams [criticises] him for it.

Hancock can’t even register the reaming as he remains stuck on his non-argument…

and then… clear admission of the disregard for the old (?and vulnerable). 

More about neglecting the vulnerable…and the failure to act early led to a disproportionate insult to the vulnerable…

but wait for it… KC:

“There was no consideration for the vulnerable, was there?”

Imagine, not considering the economic impact on the most vulnerable! 

Hancock says a few times that he was reassured that the UK was well prepared for the pandemic as the World Health Organisation (WHO) said so…

Actually what WHO said was the UK was leading the way in “preparing” for a pandemic. The very same preparation that this govt stopped.

Then there was a big save by Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru

Hancock stated that Covid was the “first” coronavirus to be asymptomatic, when in fact (as corrected by @cymru_inquiry) both SARS (1) and MERS are both transmitted asymptomatically. 

And finally, here is what is likely to be in the final inquiry report: the judgement on Hancock’s role in the failures of the preparedness of the pandemic. It is quite brutally to the point. (remember the Inquiry hasn’t even covered the actual pandemic response yet) .

The odd thing is that Hancock will think he did quite well. And, in fairness to him, he was prepared and he did try to be open. Perhaps it’s ironic that his overconfidence in his faulty premise gave him the confidence to speak openly and admit clearly the failures. 

For me, the Inquiry provides some hope. They have clearly examined the issues in great detail. They have identified some key areas – austerity, lack of NHS capacity, Brexit, delays etc… They are clear we should have acted sooner. The failure to consider airborne spread has been raised. It is disappointing they seem less than optimally equipped to refute in real time the tedious scientific claims, but nonetheless there is a forensic quality to the Inquiry and, it seems, a mountain of evidence from which to hold those in power to account. 

Expect the next module (pandemic response) to be even more forensic and to explore who made what decisions and when.

Prior to the Covid Inquiry beginning, I had little hope it would achieve any learning or justice…So far, all hope is not gone.