Matt Hancock gives timeline of events in UK's first Covid wave

Matt Hancock’s version of events: Health Secretary gives his account of how the first wave of Covid played out in grilling from MPs – so how do his claims stack up against reality and Dominic Cummings’ allegations?

  • Health Secretary appeared in front of Science and Health Committee in Parliament today to give his account
  • He hit back against claims made by Dominic Cummings, who slated him viciously in his own May appearance 
  • Mr Hancock said advisers warned him 820,000 could die and it would take longer than a year to get a jab 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock appeared in front of MPs today to defend himself against Cummings’ allegations

Matt Hancock today laid out his version of how events unfolded in the UK’s first wave of Covid in an hours-long grilling from MPs in which he said everybody had been ‘operating on highly sketchy information’.

The Health Secretary appeared before the Health and Science Select Committee in Parliament to defend himself against explosive allegations made by former No10 adviser Dominic Cummings who accused him of being incompetent and said he ‘should have been sacked 15 to 20 times’ in 2020. 

He said he wrote a blank cheque for a Covid vaccine in January last year, was convinced the virus was spreading from people without symptoms even before SAGE or the World Health Organization would acknowledge it, and that shocking early models warned 820,000 people could die but advisers told him not to lock down too early.

The embattled MP hit back against vicious remarks made by Mr Cummings in his own meeting with the committee in May, saying he has ‘no idea’ why the rogue strategist has a vendetta against him and that ‘the operation of Government has improved very significantly’ since he quit Downing Street in November last year.

Here is Matt Hancock’s version of events and how it stacks up against reality:

JANUARY: Dire warning of 820,000 dead in Spanish Flu-style outbreak

Hancock’s claim: The Health Secretary said the first disease model he commissioned, on January 27, warned that 820,000 people could die in the UK if the coronavirus caused a pandemic similar to the Spanish Flu during the First World War.

He did not say who produced the model but told MPs: ‘I asked for a reasonable worst case scenario planning assumption, and I was given the planning assumption based on Spanish Flu and it was signed off at Cobra on January 31, and that was a planning assumption for 820,000 deaths, and I was determined that that would not happen on my watch.’

The reality: January 31, the day Matt Hancock said he was given the worst-case scenario plan, the UK announced its first two coronavirus cases and hundreds of thousands were believed to be infected in China.

In a SAGE meeting on January 28 members had decided: ‘[Department of Health] to use existing planning assumptions for an influenza pandemic to develop a reasonable worst case for WN-CoV [Wuhan novel coronavirus] in the UK.’

The modelling was done internally whereas later work was mostly done by independent researchers on SAGE sub-group SPI-M, such as Professor Neil Ferguson. But the group wasn’t brought into action until January 28.

SAGE meeting records show the committee, led by Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty, discussed the model in a meeting on February 11 and it was published publicly online on May 5.

It does not show a calculation of deaths for Covid, which the scientists said they didn’t know enough about, but suggested that a flu pandemic could cause 820,000 – this was the numbers ministers were told by SAGE to use, records show, and in a column specifically for coronavirus the ‘excess deaths’ section simply said ‘unknown’.   

JANUARY: Blank cheque for a Covid vaccine and Hancock demands one within a year

Hancock’s claim: He told MPs that in a meeting on January 25 he would told it usually takes five years to make a new vaccine but that, at full pace and with a lot of luck it could feasibly be done within 12 to 18 months.

‘I said I want one within a year and will throw the full resources of the state in making that happen,’ he said.

Mr Hancock effectively signed a blank cheque for researchers to develop a vaccine. He told MPs that his plan from the start was to try to contain the virus until a vaccine became available.

Dominic Cummings’ claim: Cummings heaped the praise for the success of the development of a vaccine at the feet of Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to Boris Johnson, and Kate Bingham, the head of the vaccine taskforce.

Mr Cummings and Mr Hancock agree on one thing – that the prospect of a jab in 2020 was slim.

The adviser said: ‘We were told it was essentially a certainty that there would be no vaccines available in 2020, something else which turned out to be completely wrong because, as I think we’ll come onto, it actually turns out we could’ve done vaccines much faster than happened… At the time the whole plan was based on the assumption that it was a certainty that there would be no vaccines in 2020.’

He added: ‘I think fundamentally on vaccines, there was clear responsibility, there was someone who was actually in charge of it – Kate Bingham – she was working with Patrick Vallance, she built a team who actually understood what they were doing and she had the kind of strength of character not to be pushed around…

‘Patrick said take it out of the Department for Health, will you support me on that with the PM? I said absolutely damn sure I will. I spoke to the cabinet secretary and the cabinet secretary agreed. It’s inconceivable we can leave it with DH and the Prime Minister decided in about 90 seconds fine do it and that was it.’    


Matt Hancock today admitted the first lockdown was delayed despite initial warnings over 820,000 deaths amid fears Britons would not tolerate the restrictions for long.

In a dramatic evidence session with MPs, the Health Secretary said that as early as January he was presented with a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ of the huge potential toll, based on Spanish Flu.

But imposing the draconian first national restrictions did not happen until March 23, with Mr Hancock pointing to expert advice that the public would only ‘put up with it’ for a limited time and concerns about the ‘immediate costs’. He said of the anxiety over people obeying the tough rules: ‘That proved to be wrong.’ 

Repeatedly pinning the blame on scientists, he said it was ‘hard’ to go against their advice, arguing that the PM was having to make one of the most difficult decisions in peacetime on the basis of ‘incomplete information and at great pace’.    

Addressing the barrage of claims about his conduct from Dominic Cummings, Mr Hancock denied claims that he ‘lied’ to fellow ministers and the public about the coronavirus response.

He replied bluntly ‘No’ when he was asked by science committee chair Greg Clark whether he had misled Boris Johnson about people being tested before returning from hospitals to care homes.

He said he had ‘no idea’ over why Mr Cummings was targeting him specifically over the problems. But he admitted that he knew the PM’s top aide had wanted him sacked because there was ‘briefing to the newspapers’.   

Mr Clark kicked off the session by confirming that Mr Cummings has yet to provide promised evidence backing up the barrage of allegations he made about Mr Hancock last month. 

The former No10 chief also branded Mr Hancock ‘disastrously incompetent’ and said he should have been sacked on multiple occasions. 

But Mr Clark said that Mr Cummings had missed deadlines to back up his claims, and they must be viewed as ‘unproven’. Mr Hancock said the lack of evidence was ‘telling’. 

The reality: Chinese scientists released the genetic code of the coronavirus in mid-January and Professor Sarah Gilbert, of Oxford University’s Jenner Institute vaccine lab, started working on a jab right away with the help of a £2.2million grant from the Government in March, The Lancet reported at the time.

Her team had been working on a way to develop a vaccine of this type for years and managed to simply slip Covid into the blueprint and start testing it within weeks. Jabs went into volunteers’ arms for the first time in April.

The Jenner Institute developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab – now the most widely used jab in the world after being developed and trialled in just 11 months – and the total amount of money the Government paid to the two organisations has never been revealed. 

SAGE cautioned in February 2020, in its very first meetings that, on vaccines: ‘None likely to be available in a UK epidemic’. If his claim about forming strategy around a future vaccine is true it suggests the Health Secretary was significantly more optimistic than his advisers.

JANUARY: ‘Tries to convince scientists’ the virus transmits without symptoms 

Hancock’s claim: The Health Secretary said he was convinced that the virus was spreading between people who weren’t getting symptoms but that he faced an uphill battle to work this into Government policy-making because scientists wouldn’t back him up.

‘I raised the prospect of asymptomatic transmission on the 27th of January with the CMO [Chris Whitty] and others, and he took it away and they discussed it at SAGE on the 28th and I called the WHO on the 29th,’ Mr Hancock said.

‘I’ve got the quote here – I was told that it is highly likely that the message may have been confused by translation issues [in a Chinese document] but this is unclear… 

‘The World Health Organization advice and the clinical advice of the most likely situation that I received remained that asymptomatic transmission was unlikely… I regret that I should have stuck with my guns and said there is –even if it’s uncertain and if it’s relatively small – we should base policy on that.’

Mr Hancock maintained that scientific advisers told him not to base Government policy on concerns asymptomatic transmission because it was unproven and that the World Health Organization (WHO) didn’t acknowledge it until April.  

The reality: SAGE discussed this on January 28 and the meeting record reads: ‘There is limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission, but early indications imply some is occurring. PHE developing a paper on this.’

The PHE paper was completed on the same day and said: ‘The currently available data is not adequate to provide evidence for major asymptomatic/subclinical transmission of 2019nCoV.’ 

A study published on January 31 in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine claimed to prove the first instance of asymptomatic infection in a Chinese woman who gave it to a German woman while on a business trip to Germany before she developed symptoms.

Medical chiefs in China had said it was happening in January but it was not until April 6 that the World Health Organization’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove announced in a press conference: ‘We also know it’s possible that people can transmit in the few days before they become symptomatic.’

SAGE discussed the possibility of the virus transmitting in people without symptoms on January 28 and the meeting record reads: ‘There is limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission, but early indications imply some is occurring. PHE developing a paper on this’

JANUARY: Hancock ‘pushed for Public Health England to boost testing capacity’

Hancock’s claim: The Health Secretary said that he started pushing Public Health England to increase coronavirus testing capacity from January when he realised the virus was going to take off in the UK.

He said he had been ‘driving the system to drive up testing capacity’ in January 2020 but, while Public Health England’s advice was good regarding the science, ‘there was simply not the experience to drive up the capacity’.

Defending his publicly announced target of reaching capacity to be able to do 100,000 tests per day by the end of April – which was derided by Dominic Cummings – he told MPs: ‘The purpose of the target was to galvanise the system. It worked.

‘The Prime Minister was absolutely four-square behind me and gave me his full, whole-hearted support in hitting this target because he, like me, knew we needed a radical increase in testing.’

Dominic Cummings’ claim: Mr Cummings claimed the Health Secretary himself was the barrier to scaling up testing faster and described publicly announcing his ambition of reaching 100,000 tests per day as ‘incredibly stupid’.

He said: ‘Essentially, we never really got to grips with it until the Prime Minister was back in the office and the cabinet secretary and I could say to him we’ve got to do the track and trace thing in a completely different way.

‘I warned the Prime Minister, if we don’t fire the Secretary of State [Hancock] and we don’t get the testing in someone else’s hands, we are going to kill people and it will be a catastrophe…

‘I started getting calls and No 10 were getting calls saying Hancock is interfering with the building of the test and trace system because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month. We had half the Government with me in No10 calling around frantically saying do not do what Hancock says, build the thing properly for the medium term… He should’ve been fired for that.’   

The reality: SAGE’s report from its January 28 meeting shows that there was not a test available until the end of January and that the number that labs could do were paltry: ‘Specific test should be ready by the end of week, with capacity to run 400 to 500 tests per day. Guidance being rolled out to laboratories in the UK.’

PHE and Government officials have widely admitted the testing capacity was inadequate throughout the first wave so nobody could get a swab test unless they were admitted to hospital with suspected Covid.

Government figures show the maximum testing capacity even by March 20, 2020 – three days before lockdown when hundreds of thousands of people were infected – was just 6,127 tests per day. 

The Department of Health is now capable of doing more than 570,000 lab PCR tests for coronavirus every day and there are an almost limitless supply of rapid ‘lateral flow’ kits available after officials spent billions on them.

FEBRUARY: First care home guidance released by Government; ‘staff don’t need masks’

Hancock’s claim: The Health Secretary defended his controversial ‘protective ring’ care home policy that had been torn to shreds by Dominic Cummings in the previous meeting when he called it ‘complete nonsense’.

Mr Hancock said: ‘The most important words are that we tried to. It was very hard. Each and every death in a care home weighs heavily on me and always will. We knew from the start, from very early in January that the impact of this disease was most significant on the oldest and, therefore, care home residents were going to be a particular risk… 

‘We put in funding, we made sure PPE was as available as possible and we set out guidance for care homes – the first guidance was on the 25th of February and then later when we had testing capacity in July we brought in weekly testing of staff which, I think, was the single biggest improvement in protecting residents.’

Dominic Cummings said in his own appearance last month: ‘Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes… It was obviously not being taken seriously’

Dominic Cummings’ claim: The former No10 adviser said in his own interview: ‘Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes… It was obviously not being taken seriously.’

He said Mr Hancock had promised to test everyone being discharged from a hospital into a care home as early as March but it didn’t become official policy until mid-April. Investigators later found out up to 25,000 people were discharged into homes without a test during the first wave.

The reality: Care home staff and bosses were, in early 2020, furious that they couldn’t get good enough supplies of protective equipment such as masks and gloves, which had been directed to hospitals amid fears of the NHS getting overwhelmed. Some resorted to reusing PPE, making their own or going without, they said.

Routine testing for care staff or residents wasn’t available and reports confirmed that staff had gone into work while unknowingly infected, triggering outbreaks, and that agency workers would move between homes quickly risking spreading the virus around numerous homes in a local area or region.

The first official advice for care homes wasn’t published until February 25 by Public Health England – by that time 13 people in the UK had officially tested positive but the outbreak is now known to have been significantly larger. Within three weeks 80 people had died and more than 1,900 more cases were confirmed.

The February 25 advice said staff did not need to wear face masks because they ‘do not provide protection from respiratory viruses’ during day-to-day activities. It recommended that people should stay home from work if they felt ill, should wash their hands regularly and not touch their face, and use a tissue if they have a cough. People should not be suspected to have Covid if they had not been to China or other countries with big outbreaks.

MARCH: Fears data ‘starting to follow the worst case’ and edging into lockdown

Hancock’s claim: He said that in early March he worried coronavirus cases were starting to rise in line with the horrifying projections that led to a possible 820,000 people dying and that he knew it was time to take action.

Mr Hancock’s recollection of the lead-up to lockdown mirrored that of Dominic Cummings’, in that ministers and Boris Johnson felt held back by timing the drastic measures right. Advisers had, both men claim, suggested that people wouldn’t follow the rules indefinitely and that there were negative consequences that started on day one. 

He said: ‘The week beginning the ninth of March, what happened is that the data started to follow the reasonable worst case scenario, and by the end of that week, the updated modelling, showed essentially that we were on the track of something close to that reasonable worst case scenario.’

On why lockdown didn’t start sooner he said: ‘The clear scientific advice at the time was that there was a need to have these tools like lockdown at your disposal but also that the consequences and the costs of lockdown start immediately and, critically, the clear advice at the time was that there’s only a limited period that people would put up with it, would put up with lockdown. Now that proved actually to be wrong.’

Dominic Cummings’ claim: The strategist drew up his infamous whiteboard scrawl on the night of March 13, which he said was when he realised the country needed to go into lockdown and he showed it to the Prime Minister the next day.

He said he suggested to Mr Johnson that, at a minimum, social contact would have to be limited and pubs closed, for example. There are scraps of what lockdown could mean on the whiteboard from the 13th, with suggestions of ‘everyone stays home, pubs etc close’; ‘except certain infrastructure people’; ‘who looks after the people who can’t survive alone?’. It adds choice between for ‘less contact’, ‘no contact’ and ‘contact illegal’.

That evening, Mr Cummings said, the second most senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office, Helen MacNamara, walked into Mr Johnson’s office and allegedly said: ‘I think we are absolutely f*****’, and warned that ‘thousands’ of people could die.  

Mr Cummings tweeted a picture of the whiteboard before his explosive grilling from MPs over how Downing St handled the pandemic. He captioned the image: ‘First sketch of Plan B, PM study, Fri 13/3 eve – shown PM Sat 14/4: NB. Plan A “our plan” breaks NHS,>4k p/day dead min.Plan B: lockdown, suppress, crash programs (tests/treatments/vaccines etc), escape 1st AND 2nd wave (squiggly line instead of 1 or 2 peaks)… details later’

Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock are pictured looking worried at a meeting in 10 Downing Street in February 2020, before the UK went into its first coronavirus lockdown

The reality: 321 people had tested positive by March 9 and the first proper social distancing rules were announced on March 16 when cases had risen to 1,543 before spiking to almost 2,000 on the 17th.

Boris Johnson held a press conference – they were now daily – and made his first substantial step towards locking down the country, urging people to stop ‘non-essential contact’ with others and to ‘stop all unnecessary travel’. He also added a 14-day self-isolation period for people living with someone with the virus.

He added: ‘We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.’

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