Health & Lifestyle

Matt Hancock told Public Health England chief ‘not to patronise him’ in row which saw her told to stay away from the ex-Health Secretary

  • Prof Yvonne Doyle was also told to distance herself from then-Health Secretary
  • It came after she said there could be people with Covid in the UK in early 2020

Matt Hancock told one of the country’s top medics ‘not to patronise’ him in the weeks leading up to the pandemic.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, former medical director of the now-defunct Public Health England (PHE), was also told to distance herself from the then-Health Secretary, despite the developing crisis.

It came after she gave an interview, in which she stated there ‘could well be’ people with Covid in the UK prior to the first cases of the virus being confirmed.

In a witness statement to the UK Covid Inquiry, Professor Doyle said her ‘main concern’ in early 2020 was that her advice ‘was not always welcome’.

She said ‘there was a distance’ between herself and ministers, particularly Mr Hancock, at the end of January and for ‘quite a bit’ of February.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, former medical director of the now-defunct Public Health England, was also told to distance herself from the then-Health Secretary, despite the developing crisis

Professor Yvonne Doyle, former medical director of the now-defunct Public Health England, was also told to distance herself from the then-Health Secretary, despite the developing crisis

In a witness statement to the UK Covid Inquiry, Professor Doyle said her 'main concern' in early 2020 was that her advice 'was not always welcome'. She said 'there was a distance' between herself and ministers, particularly Mr Hancock, at the end of January and for 'quite a bit' of February

In a witness statement to the UK Covid Inquiry, Professor Doyle said her ‘main concern’ in early 2020 was that her advice ‘was not always welcome’. She said ‘there was a distance’ between herself and ministers, particularly Mr Hancock, at the end of January and for ‘quite a bit’ of February

Professor Doyle told the inquiry: ‘It followed a media interview I had done it at the end of January where I said straight that there could well be cases in the country – which, of course, there were 10 days later – and that we were unclear about, but were prepared to consider, that asymptomatic infection could occur.

‘This does not go down well, I’m afraid. It may well have been my presentation or the way I did that interview, but I felt it was the truth. I was telling the truth.

‘The way that was handled was that I was advised not to do any further media and that the Secretary of State would need to clear all media, which of course we agreed to.

‘But also that it was probably best if I just kept a distance for a while until things settle down, which I did.’

Professor Doyle told the inquiry that it was colleagues in the civil service who gave her this advice and told her it ‘would be the best way to calm things down’.

She also told the inquiry she met Mr Hancock and he ‘made his displeasure clear’, asking her ‘not to patronise him’.

She said she apologised and told him ‘I really am sorry if you think the science let you down’.

Professor Doyle was medical director and director of health protection at PHE and remained in post until it was dissolved in October 2021.

From February to July 2020, she was the senior responsible officer for the input of the organisation to the pandemic response.

She told the inquiry the ethos of PHE was ‘to support ministers’.

‘I did feel I had let him down in some way,’ she added. ‘But I still felt I had spoken the truth.’

Professor Doyle said she ‘didn’t make any fuss’ about the incident and ‘did eventually’ do more media interviews and appeared at Downing Street briefings.

Inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor highlighted that it was a time when Professor Doyle would have expected to have quite frequent contact with the health secretary, given the developing pandemic.

She said she had had ‘very frequent contact up to 2020’.

Professor Doyle said ‘good colleagues’ and deputies stepped in to bridge the communication gap.

She added: ‘I really felt the public and population should not suffer in any way because of this and, therefore, we found ways to continue the work.’

It comes after the inquiry heard that Mr Hancock wanted to decide ‘who should live and who should die’ if the NHS became overwhelmed during the pandemic.

Simon Stevens, ex-chief executive of the health service, said the comments were made during a February 2020 crunch meeting, where it was set out that the UK could see 840,000 deaths in the first wave under a reasonable worst-case scenario.

In his written submission to the inquiry, Lord Stevens shared details about a planning exercise — called operation Nimbus — on February 12, 2020.

In a witness statement, Lord Simon Stevens, the former chief executive officer, said the comments were made during a February 2020 planning meeting

In a witness statement, Lord Simon Stevens, the former chief executive officer, said the comments were made during a February 2020 planning meeting

Led by the Cabinet Office, the purpose was to set out how the Government would respond to a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ in which there are 1.6million new cases per week — of which 1.25 per cent are fatal — and 860,000 deaths are forecast in the coming months.

Inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor said the exercise ‘provoked a discussion’ about who should be responsible for making decisions about prioritising and allocating stretched NHS resources in this situation.

In a witness statement to the inquiry, Lord Stevens wrote: ‘My sense at the time was that it [the planning exercise] helpfully sensitised a wider range of Government departments [beyond the health sector] to the type of pressures the UK might experience.

‘It did result in — to my mind at least — an unresolved but fundamental ethical debate about a scenario in which a rising number of Covid patients overwhelmed the ability of hospitals to look after them and other non-Covid patients.

‘The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care took the position that in this situation he — rather than, say the medical profession or the public — should ultimately decide who should live and who should die.

‘Fortunately this horrible dilemma never crystalised.’

Mr O’Connor noted that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, a former Health Secretary, ‘took a different view’ during Exercise Cygnus — a 2016 Government simulation of a flu outbreak. 

Mr Hunt told the Covid inquiry in June that, at that time of the exercise, there was a protocol requiring the Health Secretary to ‘flick a switch’ and decide who should be cared for.

But he said ministers should not be asked to ‘play God’ and deprive people of a hospital bed, so ordered that the policy be changed, concluding that it was ‘inappropriate’ for this decision to be taken ‘away from the front line’.

Mr O’Connor told Lord Stevens that Mr Hancock ‘took a very different view’ and asked whether his stance was ‘an appropriate line to take’ or ‘desirable’.

In response, Lord Stevens told the inquiry: ‘I thought it would be highly undesirable except in the most extreme circumstances.’

He said the Department of Health created an ethical and moral advisory panel to look into how to limit care ‘in a way that would be fairest and be the most defensible under this horrible situation’. 

Lord Stevens added: ‘I certainly wanted to discourage the idea that an individual Secretary of State, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, should be deciding how care will be provided.

‘I felt that we are well served by the medical profession in consultation with patients, to the greatest extent possible making those kind of decisions.’

Asked whether this was an example of operation Nimbus ‘doing its job’ by highlighting issues while there was still time to think about how to deal with it, Lord Stevens said: ‘I actually don’t think this was a question that was resolved.’

Covid compared to chickenpox as late as March 2020, Covid inquiry hears

Government officials wanted Brits to get Covid and develop immunity ‘like chickenpox’ as late as March 2020, the UK’s Covid inquiry herd today.

Sir Christopher Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, told former cabinet secretary Lord Sedwill that he was ‘exactly right’ to believe that people in the UK should become infected to build up herd immunity — when enough people are immune to a virus that it is unable to spread.

In a message on March 12, 2020, shared with the inquiry, Lord Sedwill said: ‘I don’t think PM & Co have internalised yet the distinction between minimising mortality and not trying to stop most people getting it.

‘Indeed presumably like chickenpox we want people to get it and develop herd immunity before the next wave.

‘We just want them not to get it all at once and preferably when it’s warn (sic) and dry etc.’

Sir Christopher responded: ‘Exactly right. We make the point every meeting, they don’t quite get it.’

The exchange came a matter of days before the Government moved to introduce a lockdown, amid fears about the NHS being overwhelmed by the virus.

Matt Hancock would be 'surprised' at how widespread the view was that the then-health secretary told 'untruths' in the pandemic, a top civil servant told the Covid Inquiry. Sir Christopher Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, said: 'I suspect he will be surprised by how widespread it was'

Matt Hancock would be ‘surprised’ at how widespread the view was that the then-health secretary told ‘untruths’ in the pandemic, a top civil servant told the Covid Inquiry. Sir Christopher Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, said: ‘I suspect he will be surprised by how widespread it was’

It also came on the same day that former top adviser Dominic Cummings had complained in a WhatsApp message that Lord Sedwill had been ‘babbling about chickenpox’, adding ‘god f***ing help us’.

Giving evidence to the inquiry earlier this week, Mr Cummings claimed that Lord Sedwill had told Boris Johnson: ‘PM, you should go on TV and should explain that this is like the old days with chickenpox and people are going to have chickenpox parties. And the sooner a lot of people get this and get it over with the better sort of thing.’

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Cummings responded to the evidence aired at the inquiry on Thursday.

He said: ‘The reason the Cabinet Secretary suggested to the PM on 12/3 to tell the country to hold chickenpox parties – and me/Ben Warner said “you must stop saying this” – is the Permanent Secretary at DHSC, *in charge of ‘the plan’*, was telling him this was the f***ing plan!!!

‘Holy s**t this is truly atrocious and explains so much.’

Sir Christopher, who was pressed by lead inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC to explain the exchange, said that it was a reference to herd immunity but argued it was ‘reflecting the state of the scientific advice at that point’.

He said he had been ‘very, very loose in my reply’ and that he had at the time been following the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advice.

It comes after Sir Christopher told the inquiry that Matt Hancock would be ‘surprised’ at how widespread the view was that he told ‘untruths’ Inquiry.

Sir Christopher said: ‘I suspect he will be surprised by how widespread it was.

‘He was very well aware Mr [Dominic] Cummings held those views of him and expressed them.

‘I think he probably knew the Cabinet Secretary occasionally made the same point,’ he added.

But Sir Christopher said Mr Hancock would likely be surprised that former civil servant Helen MacNamara, who gave evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, held similar views.

Messages shown to the inquiry this week show that Mr Cummings called Mr Hancock a ‘proven liar’, while Ms MacNamara, former deputy cabinet secretary, told the inquiry this week that Mr Hancock insisted things were ‘absolutely fine’ when they were ‘very, very far from fine’ during the crisis.

Sir Christopher also told the inquiry that Mr Hancock believed it was important to be ‘optimistic and aspirational’, adding he was not aware himself of the extent of views about the then-health secretary’s truth-telling.

‘There were a lot of people who said that the secretary of state was over-optimistic about what would happen and over-promised on what could be delivered,’ Sir Christopher said.

‘That was said really quite a lot. I think it was a very small number of people who said that he was actually telling untruths.’

‘He was always clear that he was doing it for a positive reason. So setting a very aspirational target, not necessarily expecting to hit it, but to galvanise the system to do more.’

‘Whether that’s a good thing to do or not, that is a matter of perception.’

Sir Christopher acknowledged that mistrust between Number 10, the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health would have been damaging.

‘The amount of time and energy that seemed to be taken up very early in the pandemic on the blame game – that energy would clearly have been better spent solving the problems the pandemic was bringing.’

Sir Christopher also pushed back at evidence from former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who described the Department of Health as ‘ungovernable’ and an ‘operational mess’ in his pandemic diaries.

Sir Christopher said he did not agree that it was chaotic, dysfunctional or ungovernable.

Discussing the Government’s response to the Covid outbreak, Sir Christopher said the Government was a ‘week late’ in introducing non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — restrictions such as masks and social distancing — leading to the first lockdown.

He also said the November lockdown was implemented too late and that was his view at the time.

He said: ‘With hindsight, we were at least a week late at all points of the NPI decisions. I agreed with the decisions at the time and timing.

‘But, looking back, we should have done each things on the 12th, 16th, 23rd … at least a week earlier.’

He added: ‘In March, our lack of knowledge and understanding about the virus and taking decisions in considerable uncertainty.

‘That is not the case for the second lockdown. By this point we have a lot of testing. We know a lot about the virus. We’re not modelling, we basically know how it goes up and down.’

However, in Sir Patrick’s pandemic diaries, he said he got a ‘ticking off’ from Sir Christopher in March 2020 after dropping ‘the bombshell of needing to move faster’.

Sir Christopher said he had ‘no recollection’ of this.


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