Former health secretary Matt Hancock has accused ex-Downing Street kingpin Dominic Cummings of launching a “totally idiotic” power grab at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Underscoring divisions in government as Covid-19 began to spread in the UK, Mr Hancock claims that – upon realising Brexit was “no longer the big story” – Boris Johnson’s top aide set up a daily meeting in No 10 to deal with the pandemic, which clashed with the health secretary’s own and involved “many of the same people”.
This “power grab” in February 2020 created “immediate practical problems” and left England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty feeling “pulled in all directions”, Mr Hancock alleges in his so-called Pandemic Diaries memoir, adding: “What a farce.”
“Cummings won’t come to my meeting and won’t have ministers to his,” the new book claims, accusing the aide of having “complete contempt for elected politicians – the prime minister included – who he thinks just gets in the way of the godlike technocrats he believes should run everything”.
Mr Cummings “made it very clear that he expects [his] to be the ‘decision-making meeting’ while everything else is just going through the motions”, Mr Hancock recalls in a section relating to 24 February, alleging that his own special advisers had previously returned from No 10 meetings “in despair”.
Mr Hancock purports to have told Prof Whitty, who was also expected to attend a third meeting with Mr Johnson, that it was “vital he attends No 10 meetings to make sure they don’t decide anything mad, which is a very real possibility”.
The book comes as Mr Hancock – who resigned last June for breaching his own guidance during a romantic affair with an aide – embarks on a controversial bid for “forgiveness”, most notably with his appearance on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity while parliament was sitting, which saw him suspended as a Conservative MP.
The memoir has been widely interpreted as an attempt to set out his defence and possibly divert potential criticism ahead of the looming inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.
With the virus now implicated in the deaths of nearly 210,000 people in the UK, Mr Hancock’s public manouevering has caused significant public anger, particularly given that decisions made during his tenure regarding PPE procurement and care homes have since been ruled “unlawful” by the High Court.
But speaking in the Australian jungle, Mr Hancock insisted he did not regret his handling of the pandemic, and uses his new book, co-authored with journalist Isabel Oakeshott, to attack critical reports of the government’s VIP fast lane as “utter crap”.
His recollection of 15 May states: “The Guardian is still harping on about on about Covid contracts, acting as if this government is fundamentally corrupt and has been gaily dishing out multi-million-pound contracts to ministers’ mates. It’s complete rubbish and really winds me up.
“The claim we awarded £1 billion worth of deals without following due process, using illegitimate back-channels. Utter crap. As I’ve said ad nauseam, we were in a race against time and necessarily fast-tracked the most credible officers of help.”
Mr Cummings, who acrimoniously left Mr Johnson’s Downing Street that November, has been highly critical of Mr Hancock, accusing the ex-health secretary and No 10 of “creating a new version of reality” in relation to PPE.
In a blog post last June, the Vote Leave supremo claimed Mr Hancock “had to be removed from crucial decisions” about PPE after procurement “collapsed”, adding: “The lack of PPE killed NHS and care home staff in March-May.”
Mr Johnson’s former aide also published WhatsApp messages purporting to show the PM calling Mr Hancock “totally f****** hopeless” during the pandemic’s first wave.
Mr Cummings was also scathing of Mr Hancock’s claim to have placed a “protective ring” around care homes, accusing the health secretary of “neglecting” care homes that April in favour of “trying to focus effort on his press conference” about his 100,000 daily tests target at the end of the month.
Matt Hancock says lying claims by Dominic Cummings ‘unsubstantiated’
Hitting back in his new book, Mr Hancock claimed that Mr Cummings’ “contempt for anyone he considers less intelligent than he is means he has no qualms about burning anyone”.
Mr Hancock writes: “He dreams of nuking the entire Whitehall system and putting his beloved technocratic philosopher kings in charge of building something out of the ruins. Scratch the surface and it’s just an old-fashioned power trip. He doesn’t have the subtlety needed to be an effective chief of staff.
“His destructive approach might have helped get Brexit through but is not a way to run things in a real-world crisis. We need clear lines of accountability – but he hates that because then they wouldn’t run to him.”
The Independent has approached Mr Cummings for comment.
The public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic will begin hearing evidence in the spring for its first investigation into the UK’s preparedness and resilience.