People who make the rules must abide by them, Matt Hancock has said, as he acknowledged his own infamous lockdown-breaking clinch undermined public confidence in efforts to tackle coronavirus.
Giving evidence to the COVID-19 inquiry, the MP said he had taken accountability by resigning as health secretary in June 2021 after leaked footage emerged of him kissing aide Gina Coladangelo, which broke social distancing guidelines.
The former Tory MP, who now sits as an independent in the Commons after losing the party whip for appearing on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity reality TV show, played a central role during the health crisis.
During questioning, inquiry counsel Hugo Keith pointed out Professor Neil Ferguson, whose COVID modelling was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown, had quit as a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) for flouting the rules.
Highlighting that Mr Hancock had “transgressed” himself, Mr Keith added: “I’m sure you acknowledge the incredible offence and upset that was caused by that revelation.”
Pressed over whether he thought such breaches had an impact on “the public’s propensity to adhere to rules”, Mr Hancock said: “Well, what I’d say is that the lesson for the future is very clear.
“And it is important that those who make the rules abide by them, and I resigned in order to take accountability for my failure to do that.”
Mr Keith said the resignation “must have been a reflection of the fact that you understood the importance of, or the deleterious consequences of, rule-breaking or guidance-breaking on public confidence in the public at large”.
In response, Mr Hancock said: “Yes.”
In a witness statement to the inquiry, Mr Hancock also expressed frustration over the tier system for controlling the spread of the virus, saying: “I was in despair that we had announced a policy that we knew would not work.”
He told the inquiry it was flawed because local politicians were “under significant pressure” not to accept measures.
He singled out for praise the former Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, for his “spirit of collaboration” during negotiations over the tier system.
The former health secretary said: “Joe Anderson… he was incredibly supportive.
“And we ended up in Liverpool having a package of measures that was effective after a very constructive negotiation.”
But Mr Hancock pointed out other local politicians were “not constructive” and in some cases he thought they gave “actively unhelpful input that I felt put politics ahead of public health”.
Asked about a reference in the diaries of former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance regarding difficult negotiations with Manchester, Mr Hancock said: “Yes, I would say the diary entry might be better written as political leadership in Liverpool and political leadership in Manchester – I have got no beef with the fine city of Manchester.”
Mr Hancock also insisted “every decision was a choice between difficult options”, as he discussed the decision to discharge hospital patients to care homes.
He said: “I fear that if we had left those patients in hospital – those who were medically fit to discharge – there is a high likelihood that more would have caught COVID and the problem could have been bigger.”
He added that he had not heard of a solution to the problem of discharging patients that in hindsight would have “resulted in more lives saved”.