Matt Hancock at the COVID inquiry: All the cringe-inducing moments

LONDON — It’s Matt Hancock’s world, we just live in it.

Britain’s controversial former health secretary has been rolling with the punches Thursday as he faces a two-day grilling by the official inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.

Hancock — who quit in scandal after a coronavirus rule-breaching affair with an aide was exposed — is a divisive figure in Westminster, and has rarely been out of the headlines since leaving government. An unauthorized reality TV stint saw him kicked out of the Tory party, while the leak of thousands of his private WhatsApps earlier this year shed an unflattering light on the government he served in.

He’s also taken heavy flak for his response to the virus in the inquiry — set up to learn lessons — so far. Now he gets to put his side across.

Greatest hits include the ex-No.10 Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings calling Hancock a “proven liar;” former Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara claiming Hancock would say things in meetings that “we’d discover [weren’t] in fact the case”; and top government scientist Patrick Vallance saying Hancock had a “habit” of saying things “without evidence to back them up.”

POLITICO was in the room as Hancock faced the music, and we’re keeping track of the cringiest moments so far. Check back for updates.

The not-a-diary diaries

Hancock’s “Pandemic Diaries” book came out in late 2022 — and were billed as his recollections from the inside of government during the pandemic.

But there was just one problem: all of the “diary entries” were written by Hancock and journalist Isabel Oakeshott after the fact — but as if they were written at the time. He argued they were written with the help of contemporaneous documents and WhatsApp messages.

With more than a hint of snark, top inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith — who’d presumably been forced to read the whole thing — got Hancock to admit that the “so-called diaries” as he described them were in fact… not stylistically a diary at all. And Keith gave Hancock short shrift when he tried to argue that diary notes given to the inquiry by former government science adviser Patrick Vallance might not have been made at the time either.

“These were evening notes made certainly more contemporaneously than your Pandemic Diaries book,” Keith snapped back at the seemingly unembarrassed Hancock.

Controversy over the March 13 lockdown call

Hancock came armed with some new info: he told the inquiry that, in a call with Boris Johnson on March 13, he had directly argued that the PM should call an “immediate lockdown.”

This revelation wasn’t included in those diaries — which Hancock blamed on new information that came to light after he’d written them. But Keith said the inquiry had no evidence to back that up, and when asked if he could prove it Hancock simply said he remembered the phone call happening.

Hancock told the inquiry that he had directly argued that then-PM Boris Johnson should call an “immediate lockdown” in March 2020 | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Watching along at home, the former health secretary’s arch enemy Dominic Cummings tweeted that this was a direct lie — although an ally of Hancock texted POLITICO to argue “Cummings is not a reliable witness and this tweet is wrong.”

Back in the inquiry room after a short break, Hancock said he’d found an email he sent to Johnson on March 13 where he argued for more suppression of the virus.

“In that email on March 13 do you use the word ‘immediate’ or ‘lockdown’?” Keith asked.

“I don’t have it in front of me,” Hancock insisted.

Hancock is under oath — meaning he might be in legal hot water if Johnson contradicts his account of the March 13 phone call next week.

‘Am off to rugby’ — chummy texts as pandemic raged

Much of the early sparring between Hancock and Keith concerned whether the government was taking the looming pandemic seriously.

Hancock argued that, contrary to suggestions from other witnesses that he failed to raise the alarm, he was in fact pressing the center of government to grasp the crisis and lead on it.

“Our concerns were not taken as seriously as they should have been,” he said.

The inquiry then flashed WhatsApp messages, from March 7 2020 as the crisis spiralled, between Hancock and Johnson.

In the blokey texts, the pair of politicians at the heart of Britain’s pandemic handling praised each other for “doing great” on the virus. The texts came just days after Johnson first chaired an emergency COBRA meeting on COVID, after skipping the previous five.

In the messages, Hancock then suggests Johnson launch a “national effort” to encourage hand washing, help the elderly and more.

Johnson replied: “Ok let’s talk mon. Am [sic] off to rugby.”

“Excellent. Enjoy,” Hancock replies.

Don’t look at me, look at Dom

Hancock came to the inquiry armed with a strategy to combat claims he lacked candor or didn’t have the skills for the job.

“I was not [a liar],” he said point blank, deriding what he said were “false allegations” made about him. He then performed a classic political pivot — and started to attack what he called a “toxic culture” in No. 10 “essentially created” by Cummings.

“Systems need to be in place so that if there is a malign actor in No. 10 … the system needs to be able to work despite that,” Hancock said, referring to Cummings.

In Hancock’s telling, problems in how the government operated were the result of this culture and largely Johnson’s old chief adviser. He, on the other hand, was the politician desperately trying to alert No. 10 to the threat of COVID while Johnson was distracted by this “toxic culture.”

However, Cummings isn’t the only figure who has attacked Hancock over his conduct. The former top officials Helen MacNamara and Patrick Vallance are among those to accuse him of being loose with the truth — while other senior civil servants like Mark Sedwill, Simon Case and Simon Stevens have all offered strong criticisms.

This developing story is being updated.