As Health Secretary Matt Hancock gave evidence to two House of Commons committees as part of their joint inquiry on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, what do health experts and professionals make of his many claims that the government made no mistakes during the pandemic?

First published in June 2021.

The health secretary gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, on Thursday, as part of their joint inquiry on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matt Hancock made many claims to protect his department and the government over accusations of cronyism and the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic in Britain.

What the experts say.

  • Dr Julian Tang, Honorary Associate Professor/Clinical Virologist, Respiratory Sciences, University of Leicester:

“Despite these statements from government ministers/advisors, there was already ample growing evidence for asymptomatic infection and transmission of this novel coronavirus from as early as March 2020 – as can be seen in this early ECDC document:

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic: Increased transmission in the EU/EEA and the UK – seventh update, 25 March 2020. | ECDC

“Further summarised in this review article that highlights early reports of asymptomatic transmission.

“Although this review article was published online in May 2020, some reports from China from much earlier are cited in the review, clearly demonstrating this virus’ ability to cause asymptomatic infection and to transmit from such asymptomatic cases.

Asymptomatic transmission during the COVID-19 pandemicand implications for public health strategies. | NCBI

“If you ask any clinical virologist who works with respiratory viruses, this would not be a surprise. One can always ask and wait for more evidence, but people define ‘sufficient’ and ‘evidence’ in different ways. But in an evolving pandemic, you cannot wait too long.

“The lack of testing capacity in the UK during the early, first wave of the pandemic likely skewed government policy away from testing asymptomatic cases, as well as symptomatic cases in the community – but this is quite a separate issue from saying that asymptomatic cases are not infectious and do not transmit the virus.

“At this point, sadly, it was less that government policy followed the science, more that government policy followed what testing capacity was available – which could have been much more if the threat was taken more seriously, earlier, in January 2020 – as indicated by these early papers – giving diagnostic labs the time to ramp up their testing capabilities – to allow the wider testing of milder symptomatic and asymptomatic cases in the community, hospitals and care homes, which have now been shown to be important drivers of the pandemic.”

— Source: SMC.

Health Sec. Matt Hancock. | Flickr/Number 10

“Hancock claims that earlier lockdown would have gone against the scientific consensus and that ‘the clear advice at the time was that there’s only a limited period that people would put up with it’. This is quite simply untrue.

“It is an old claim that has been comprehensively debunked. Such advice didn’t come from the Government’s own behavioural advisory group. Such an idea was publicly disputed by behavioural scientists.

“So I don’t know what Hancock means when he talks about ‘the clear advice at the time’ but it was not the scientific advice, and certainly not the behavioural science advice.

“I well recall the moment we first heard the argument that lockdown had to be delayed because people wouldn’t abide it for long. We had no idea where the idea came from, and we were horrified first and foremost because we felt it was wrong and would do great damage.

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“I had joined the government advisory structures because of previous work I had done (with Professor John Drury) on behaviour in emergencies, where the consensus debunks the notion of panic and shows how people act in far more orderly, reasoned and supportive ways than usually assumed.

“This notion was a return to the old ‘folk psychology’ myths about the frailty of mass behaviour. It was the triumph of myth over evidence. It went against the general scientific consensus. It certainly went against what we were advising the Government.

“We were horrified also because, if this idea gained traction, it would discredit behavioural science and suggest it was part of the problem, not the solution. We felt that it would be used subsequently to blame the scientists for the Government’s failures. Now, over a year later, we realise that we were more accurate than we feared.

“Hancock argues he was stopped by the scientists from acting quickly against COVID. This is an inversion of the truth. If this were a proper inquiry, Hancock would be guilty of perjury.”

— Source: Twitter & Twitter.

Health Sec. Matt Hancock. | Flickr/Number 10

  • Professor John Drury, Professor of Social Psychology, University of Sussex, and a member of SAGE/SPI-B:

“Public ‘fatigue’ rears its ugly head again, now in Hancock’s re-write of history. Here’s the truth about public ‘fatigue’ in covid, by Susan Michie, Robert West and Nigel Harvey.

“If there was ‘fatigue’, levels of adherence would decline in a linear way – but they did not; levels of adherence respond to level of risk and actions/ communications by the government.

“‘Fatigue’ is another example of dangerous folk-psychology being applied by the authorities to the management of an emergency.

“As the SPI-B document from March last year indicates, there was not a ‘consensus’ among scientists that the public would not ‘put up with’ the restrictions. The restrictions we were asked about in this briefing document were to do with reducing social contacts (i.e. physical distancing), not ‘lockdown’.

“At the time, unnamed experts said that people would get bored and that measures might be unsustainable. But you will not find reference to this in any of the documents produced for the government by SPI-B.” 

— Source: Twitter.

Boris Johnson & Matt Hancock. | Flickr/Number 10

Going Further:


PMP News reporting.


[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 11 June 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Screenshot/UK Parliament. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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