Matt Hancock claims not overruling science which stated Covid couldn’t spread asymptomatically is his ‘single greatest regret’ and says he should have followed his ‘hunch’
- Hancock claimed no ‘concrete evidence’ virus could spread without symptoms
- But he was worried about this transmission, which US said was ‘highly likely’
Matt Hancock today claimed his ‘single greatest regret’ during the pandemic was not ‘overruling’ advice from scientists who supposedly said Covid couldn’t spread asymptomatically.
The shamed ex-health secretary claimed advisers told him there was no ‘concrete evidence’ the virus could transmit between people without symptoms in the early months of the crisis.
Addressing the Covid Inquiry today in a highly-anticipated showdown, he said that he was in the ‘pro-let’s worry about asymptomatic transmission camp’.
Mr Hancock claimed his fears traced back to January 2020, when troublesome data first emerged signalling that the virus could be spreading under the radar.
He later claimed he wished he followed his ‘hunch’, claiming it could have triggered a change in infection control measures in hospitals and care homes.
Minutes from a meeting of Government advisers in January discussed asymptomatic transmission as being a possibility.
Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief Covid gurus at the height of the pandemic, said that it was ‘clear’ such spread was occurring by March 2020, emails presented to the Inquiry revealed.
Ex-No10 aide Dominic Cummings also suggested it was evident by mid-March, but Mr Hancock dismissed the comments as ‘not accurate’.
The former health secretary claimed scientific advisers told him there was no ‘concrete evidence’ the virus could spread between people with no symptoms, such as a cough and loss of taste or smell, in the early months of the crisis
The inquiry was also shown messages between Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance that expressed surprise that Boris Johnson and Mr Hancock were unaware of asymptomatic transmission. In an exchange on July 24, 2020, Sir Patrick, then chief scientific adviser, said: ‘Why are PM and Matt Hancock saying we didn’t know about asymptomatic transmission?’
Mr Hancock told the UK Covid Inquiry that he had been aware of the possibility of the virus being passed on asymptomatically and raised the issue in January 2020.
He said he was aware of ‘anecdotal evidence’ of the virus spreading without causing symptoms but policy was based on the assumption this did not occur.
‘My single greatest regret with hindsight was not pushing on this harder and ultimately not overruling the formal scientific advice I was receiving,’ he said.
He said that the World Health OrganiZation (WHO) had initially said there was no documented asymptomatic transmission but the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a survey in April 2020 suggesting it was ‘highly likely’.
Mr Hancock said the ‘fog of uncertainty’ about asymptomatic transmission of was ‘deeply frustrating’.
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Matt Hancock stressed his ‘vast’ responsibilities as health secretary today as he kicked off his evidence at the Covid Inquiry
He said: ‘I was in the pro-let’s worry about asymptomatic transmission camp. The frustration was that, understandably from their point of view, and here I’m putting myself in their shoes, the PHE scientists said we have not got concrete evidence.’
Asked whether the Government should have been aware of the possibility of asymptomatic transmission, he said he had ‘a significant amount of anecdotal evidence’, but ‘the scientific advice required, or formally advised, policy should be based on the assumption of no asymptomatic transmission’.
While giving evidence to the inquiry, Mr Hancock branded Mr Cummings’s evidence as ‘not accurate’.
No10’s former chief adviser previously said that it was generally understood by March 11, 2020 that a ‘large percentage’ of Covid transmission was occurring asymptomatically and planning material presumed there would be, lead counsel Hugo Keith KC told Mr Hancock.
Mr Hancock replied: ‘Well that is not accurate, as much of that particular witness’s evidence is not accurate, that is not accurate in all areas.’
He added: ‘I took the precautionary principle, in some cases overruling the scientific advice on the precautionary side.’
The inquiry was also shown messages between Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance that expressed surprise that Boris Johnson and Mr Hancock were unaware of asymptomatic transmission.
In an exchange on July 24, 2020, Sir Patrick, then chief scientific adviser, said: ‘Why are PM and Matt Hancock saying we didn’t know about asymptomatic transmission?’
Sir Chris, England’s chief medical officer, replied: ‘I have no idea. We did not know how important they were, that is correct.
No10’s former chief adviser previously said that it was generally understood by March 11, 2020 that a ‘large percentage’ of Covid transmission was occurring asymptomatically and planning material presumed there would be, lead counsel Hugo Keith KC (pictured) told Mr Hancock
Matt Hancock arriving at the Covid Inquiry to give his evidence today
‘But it is correct we thought transmission was most likely after (symptoms).’
Sir Patrick said: ‘Not by March. I think we were pretty clear that we thought there was asymptomatic transmission.’
Sir Chris replied: ‘Yes. We will have to put up with quite a bit of this. Just as well Sage minutes are public domain.’
Commenting on the messages, Mr Hancock said: ‘There was huge uncertainty on this question.
‘It is deeply frustrating to me now, and it was deeply frustrating to me at the time, that being “pretty clear” was not good enough to change the scientific advice I was receiving on which to base policy.’
When asked what measures could have been introduced if the advice had been clearer, Mr Hancock said: ‘It made a difference in terms of how infection prevention and control was done within health and care settings. That is very clear.’
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