UK’s Covid lockdown delay was fatal mistake, Hancock tells inquiry
Britain should have locked down three weeks earlier at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to save tens of thousands of lives, Matt Hancock told the Covid inquiry yesterday.
The former health secretary said that “with hindsight”, restrictions should have been imposed as soon as it became clear that coronavirus was sweeping the country, estimating that this could have cut the early death toll by 90%.
On the first of a two-day evidence session at the inquiry, Hancock defended himself against accusations of lying from a string of senior government figures as he blamed a “toxic culture” in No 10 Downing St, fuelled by Dominic Cummings.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson will give evidence for two days next week, the inquiry has confirmed, and will be confronted with claims that Cummings, his chief adviser, was a “malign actor” who created a “culture of fear” that made responding to the pandemic harder.
Hancock told the inquiry that No 10 ignored his warnings about Covid at the start of 2020, blocked his attempts to activate the Cobra system, and did not take the pandemic “seriously” until the end of February.
He insisted that he spent the first part of 2020 “trying to wake up Whitehall”, saying the Department of Health had to do so much because the rest of government was “slow getting going”.
But Hancock accepted that plans drawn up by his department were “inadequate”, as he warned that Britain left itself vulnerable to another pandemic by skimping on surveillance.
Hancock told the inquiry that plans were “based on the assumption that we’d be dealing with the consequences of a pandemic, rather than trying to suppress a pandemic”, which he now believed was a mistake.
February 28 was singled out by Hancock as “the moment when it became clear that action was going to be needed” and that discussion then “switched from whether
to go, to when to go”.
He said he spoke to Johnson that day, and it was “the moment that the centre of government led by the prime minister really started to come into action”.
Concerns by scientific advisers that people would tire of restrictions was a key reason for delaying, along with the underestimation of cases, Hancock said.
“I can defend the actions that were taken by the government at the time, knowing what we did, but with hindsight, that’s the moment we should have done it, three weeks earlier. And it would have saved many, many lives,” he told the inquiry.
The government should have operated on the principle that “as soon as you know you’re going to lock down, you lock down as soon as possible”, he said.
At the beginning of March, the doubling time of the epidemic was about three or four days, so by locking down at the start of March “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”, he said.
About 50,000 people died of Covid in the first half of 2020, although some sci
entists have argued that Britain’s relatively high early infection rate prevented the more serious subsequent waves seen in other European countries.
Hancock claimed he had told Johnson on March 13, 2020 that he should introduce an “immediate” lockdown, prompting scepticism from Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, who pointed out that Hancock had failed to mention this in his Pandemic Diaries, published last year.
Hancock rejected suggestions that Britain should have waited longer to lock down to see whether voluntary measures imposed on March 16 were working.
He pointed out that there was “enormous consensual support across very large swathes of the population and almost all political leaders” as he rejected criticism of scientific modelling. “The problem with those forecasts was that they were coming true,” he said.
Hancock said he was “concerned” that testing and surveillance had been cut back too much, and that Britain needed “the ability very rapidly to put it back in place ... ready to go at the flick of a switch”.