Covid Inquiry Reveals: Hancock Accuses Some Local Leaders of Prioritizing Politics Over Public Health


PA Media

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has criticized local figures, including Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, for prioritizing "politics over public health" amid the pandemic.

During his appearance at the Covid inquiry, the former health secretary mentioned that the government's efforts to enforce local regulations were hindered by resistance, delaying their implementation.

When questioned about whether he was specifically referring to Manchester, he clarified that he meant the city's leadership, not the local residents. 

But he raised eyebrows when he said Mr Anderson "was sadly, no longer with us" despite the fact the former mayor is still alive.

In response to the criticism, Mr. Burnham countered Hancock's perspective, stating, "That may be Mr. Hancock's opinion, but he's wrong." 

He emphasized the collaborative efforts of the Greater Manchester mayor and leaders, including a Conservative leader, who worked extensively to negotiate a deal with the government. According to Burnham, imposing further restrictions without a proper financial support package would have been unjust to the residents.

Hancock also voiced discontent with the communication approach of the former First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. He criticized it as "unhelpful and confusing," asserting that it had a detrimental effect on the overall response to the Covid situation in the UK.

Despite this, he highlighted his positive relationship with health ministers in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, likening their meetings to "therapy sessions."

Having served as health secretary for a significant part of the pandemic, Hancock resigned in June 2021 after breaching social distancing guidelines.

On the second day of his testimony to the inquiry, Hancock faced questions about government decisions as Covid cases surged in the autumn of 2020.

Hancock described the rising case numbers as "harrowing" and revealed that he urged the government to "act fast" to prevent a second national lockdown, as indicated by messages presented to the inquiry.

During questioning by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC, Hancock admitted, "If we had taken action sooner in September 2020, we might have avoided the need to close schools." Schools were eventually closed in January 2021 due to the severity of the situation.

Messages to civil service head Simon Case from late October showed Hancock expressing concern about being "blocked" from a meeting and Rishi Sunak, the then-chancellor, putting "enormous pressure" on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to avoid taking sufficient action.

In mid-October, the government introduced the tier system to curb the virus's spread, implementing different rules in areas based on local case numbers.

In his inquiry statement, Hancock admitted feeling "in despair" when the tier system was announced, believing it "would not work." He attributed this to insufficiently stringent top-tier restrictions and delays caused by negotiations with regions, leading to confusion.

Hancock revealed local leaders faced "significant local pressure not to accept measures." While he successfully negotiated an "effective" support package in Liverpool, he criticized others as "not so constructive and in some cases actively unhelpful."

When asked if this was what former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance referred to as "difficult negotiations in Manchester," Hancock confirmed, emphasizing his comments targeted local leadership, stating, "I have got no beef with the fine city of Manchester."

Greater Manchester entered tier three restrictions on October 20, resulting in the closure of pubs and bars and restrictions on household mixing. This decision sparked a dispute between Mr Burnham and the government over the level of financial support for the area.


During questioning by Claire Mitchell KC, representing the Scottish Covid Bereaved group, Mr Hancock was queried about the relationship between the UK and Scottish governments.

The inquiry revealed messages where Hancock expressed a desire to announce particular information swiftly, stating, "It will leak anyway - and the Scots will try to get their announcement out first."

Hancock, addressing the inquiry, remarked, "There were instances when the first minister of Scotland would communicate in a way that was unhelpful and confusing to the public. 

"Sometimes, [she] would leave a meeting and begin communication of a decision, for instance, sooner than agreed."

Additionally, Mr Keith inquired about Hancock's breach of social distance guidance, specifically when he was caught on filmed kissing his aide Gina Coladangelo in his office.

Hancock acknowledged the importance of rule-makers adhering to the rules, stating, "It is important that those who make the rules abide by them, and I resigned in order to take accountability." He accepted that "transgressions" in his personal life might have affected public confidence in the rules.