Tue. Sep 26th, 2023


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Matt Hancock says he’s ‘profoundly sorry’ for ‘huge error’ in pandemic planning

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Matt Hancock gets emotional at the Covid Inquiry

Matt Hancock yesterday laid bare the UK’s failings in preparing for Covid and said he wanted above everything to be “brutally honest” with people.

The ex-Health Secretary said he felt it was vital to explain and admit “huge” errors that left the nation so exposed to the pandemic.

He told the Covid-19 inquiry: “I’m profoundly sorry for each death that has occurred. I just wanted to be brutally honest with the British public. I wanted to explain to everyone what it was like. That was my guiding principle – to tell it as it was.”

Contrite Mr Hancock, 44, who faced tense encounters with bereaved family members before he gave evidence at the Covid-19 inquiry, said the UK had made a “huge error” in assuming the pandemic could not be prevented from spreading.

On arrival at the Central London inquiry, Mr Hancock had a tense encounter with protesters who lost family in the crisis. It is calculated 227,871 people died in the UK with Covid on the death certificate.

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In his three hours of evidence, the former minister said: “I am profoundly sorry for the impact that it had. I’m profoundly sorry for each death that has occurred.

“And I also understand why, for some, it will be hard to take that apology from me. I understand that, I get it. But it is honest. But that is honest and true.”

The then-married father of three became Health Secretary in mid-2018 but had to quit after a lockdown rule-breaking affair he conducted with an aide was exposed. Yesterday he blamed poor preparations for the toll, claiming plans focused on dealing with deaths rather than averting them.

Mr Hancock said that it had left him exposed but – as the person in charge of responding to the biggest health crisis in living memory – ultimately responsible for the problems.

During terse exchanges with inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC, his core message was he inherited a health system that was unable to cope with a non-flu pandemic. He “blamed doctrinal” issues for top-to-bottom failure to prepare.

Exercise Cygnus, a 2016 simulation on how prepared the UK was for a mass flu outbreak, concluded plans were not sufficient to cope with a “severe pandemic”.

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Evidence suggests only eight of 22 recommendations made had been addressed fully when Covid struck four years later – work on the other 14, including bolstering the social care sector, was continuing.

Mr Hancock said that he was “not convinced” that even if all 22 had been addressed, the UK would have been in a better place. He said Cygnus was “flawed in its central assumption” that a pandemic was a disaster that needed to be “cleaned up” – rather than stopped or contained in the first place.

He told the inquiry the focus was to plan for the consequences, such as: “‘Can we buy enough body bags, where are we going to bury the dead?’

“That was completely wrong. All I can do is ensure this inquiry gets to the bottom of it and that for the future we learn the right lessons, so that we stop a pandemic in its tracks much, much earlier. And that we have the systems in place ready to do that, because I’m worried that they’re being dismantled as we speak.”

Covid was declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Five days later, then-PM Boris Johnson announced “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact and travel”. On March 23 he announced a national lockdown.

Outside the hearing in Dorland House, Mr Hancock was heckled and branded a “killer” by angry demonstrators, as some shouted: “How many have died?”

As he arrived, Jean Adamson – whose father Aldrick, 98, died of Covid in a care home in April 2020 – accused Mr Hancock of refusing to take “any responsibility”.

At the time, Mr Hancock claimed he had “thrown a protective ring around care homes to protect the elderly and vulnerable”. He was central to a decision to move untested elderly patients from hospitals into the homes. Campaigners say that it was one of the biggest scandals of the health emergency.

Ms Adamson, 59, added yesterday: “It’s just essentially a self-serving exercise from him trying to save his own skin. It isn’t about having an apology. What we’d like to see is more humility from him and genuine remorse.

“The pattern that runs through his testimony is, ‘I did my best, it’s not my fault’. That’s really difficult to listen to. He’s only sorry that he got caught. He happened to be the one in charge at the time, and he’s now being held accountable. I felt it was disingenuous.”

Mr Hancock had to quit in June 2021 when photos showed him in a clinch at the Department of Health and Social Care with his aide-now-partner Gina Coladangelo, 46.

After his affair with the married mum of three was exposed, Mr Hancock told his wife Martha their 15-year marriage was over. At the time he had ordered millions to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives by following the very isolation rules he helped draw up.

Ten days after his pictured embrace, Mr Hancock ordered everybody to be “careful” when hugging and to only do it outside.

In written evidence to the hearing, Mr Hancock had said: “There isn’t a day that goes by I do not think about all those who lost their lives to this awful disease or the loved ones they have left behind. My office in Parliament overlooks the National Memorial Covid Wall. I have visited the wall and been able to read about many of the families affected. I express my deepest sympathies.”

Ending his evidence, he said: “We must learn that lesson, that we need to take the measures necessary early to stop a future pandemic from killing people.”

Mr Hancock, who sits as an independent MP after losing the Tory whip, was paid £400,000 to appear on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! last year. He claimed the show was an opportunity for him to “seek forgiveness”.

The World Health Organisation says nearly 36 million people in Europe – one in 30 – may have had “long Covid” during the three years of the pandemic.

The inquiry continues.

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