Matt Hancock insisted things were ‘absolutely fine’ when they were ‘very, very far from fine’ during the Covid crisis, the pandemic inquiry heard today.
The ex-health secretary, who has become a reality TV star since leaving frontline politics, was slated for his ‘nuclear levels of confidence’ and revealed to be widely seen as ‘untruthful’ across Whitehall when he was in post.
Helen MacNamara, who was one of Britain’s highest-ranking officials during Covid, offered a disparaging view of Mr Hancock when she appeared before the inquiry this morning.
She even described how, in one bizarre incident, Mr Hancock imitated being a cricket batsman at the height of the pandemic and told her: ‘They bowl them at me, I knock them away.’
Ms MacNamara’s evidence came after Mr Hancock was revealed to have been branded a ‘c***’ and a ‘proven liar who nobody believes’ in foul-mouthed WhatsApp messages sent by former No 10 aide Dominic Cummings.
Appearing before the committee today, Ms MacNamara – the former deputy cabinet secretary – said there was a pattern of ‘being reassured that something was absolutely fine’ by Mr Hancock before discovering it was ‘very, very far from fine’.
She said the ex-health secretary ‘time and time again’ without ‘any ambiguity’ told fellow Cabinet ministers that plans were in place during the pandemic, which did not turn out to be the case.
Andrew O’Connor KC, counsel to the inquiry, asked: ‘Would it be fair to say you were surprised, let down, when you realised that what he had said wasn’t actually true?’
‘I was surprised, yes,’ Ms MacNamara replied.
In her witness statement to the inquiry, the former top official was revealed to have said the ‘the usual systems of governance in Whitehall rely on people being truthful’ and suggested that people working in Government did not trust Mr Hancock.
Asked whether she believed Mr Hancock was not saying things that were true, she said: ‘It’s definitely the view in Government. I think it’s fair to say it’s what we experienced.
‘So that what was said in a meeting as actually being under control or going to be delivered, or something that was fine, that then subsequently, a matter of days sometimes, or sometimes weeks later, that we’d discover that that wasn’t in fact the case.’
Ms MacNamara’s witness statement also described how she once asked Mr Hancock if he needed any extra support after he had recently recovered from Covid and returned to Downing Street.
Mr O’Connor read from the statement: ‘He reassured me that he was “loving responsibility” and to demonstrate this took up a batsman’s stance outside the Cabinet room and said “they bowl them at me, I knock them away”.’
Quizzed about why she included the anecdote in her statement, Ms MacNamara told the inquiry: ‘I’m trying to explain just how jarring some of that was. It does partly go back to my point about nuclear levels of confidence that were being deployed, that I do think is a problem. It really stuck with me this moment.’
She added: ‘It was important to me at the time, so I felt it was important to include in this way. It’s more a point about confidence than anything else.’
Asked whether she meant confidence or overconfidence, Ms MacNamara replied: ‘Yes, overconfidence.’
Mr O’Connor said: ‘You were trying to engage with Mr Hancock about the incredibly onerous scope and impact of the decisions he was going to have to be making, the impact on the lives of everyone in the country of those decisions. And he thought he was playing cricket.’
Ms MacNamara replied: ‘I assumed it would be weighing heavy on his shoulders. He may well tell you that it was and he felt it was important to project something else instead.
‘I don’t know, I just know how I experienced that.’
In his own evidence to the inquiry yesterday, Mr Cummings described how he had urged then prime minister Boris Johnson to sack Mr Hancock in the summer of 2020.
‘In my opinion this was one of his very worst and most unforgivable decisions,’ Mr Cummings said.
‘The PM knew and expressed often in the summer not just what a terrible job Hancock had done but how dishonest he was.
‘If we’d replaced Hancock before August then things like rapid testing would have been smoother, planning would have been more honest and effective, and thousands would have survived.’
A spokesperson for Matt Hancock said: ‘Mr Hancock has supported the inquiry throughout and will respond to all questions when he gives his evidence.’