Matt Hancock – 2020 Interview with Andrew Marr

Below is the text of the interview between Andrew Marr and Matt Hancock, broadcast on 7 June 2020.

Andrew Marr:

You’ll have heard Professor Edmunds there saying very, very clearly he understood it was difficult and it wasn’t easy but he wished that we had locked earlier. Do you agree with that?

Matt Hancock:

No.

Andrew Marr:

No?

Matt Hancock:

I think we took the right decisions at the right time and there’s a broad range on SAGE of scientific opinion and we followed – we were guided by the science which means guided by the balance of that opinion, as expressed to ministers through the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser. That’s the right way for it to have been done.

Andrew Marr:

I’m not saying it was an easy decision but he is absolutely clear that it cost lives not locking earlier.

Matt Hancock:

Well, there are others who equally make different scientific arguments and the way that this is done –

Andrew Marr:

Is there anyone who thinks it didn’t cost lives?

Matt Hancock:

Well yes. If you listen to the balance of opinion on SAGE, a hundred people on SAGE approximately, what we do as ministers is we take the scientific advice, channelled through the Chief Medical Officer on the medical side, the Chief Scientific Adviser on the broader science and then we have to – as Professor Edmund said, we have to make the balanced judgements based on that advice. And that’s the way it works. So you’ll always, in a body of a hundred people you’ll always find differing voices. It’s totally reasonable.

Andrew Marr:

And yet absolutely clear you are sure that locking when you did and not earlier did not cost lives?

Matt Hancock:

I’m sure, and as I keep looking back on that period, I’m sure that taking into account everything we knew at that moment we made the – my view is – that we made the right decisions at the right time. But the other thing I’d say, Andrew, is that I spend most of my time trying to rid this country, rid all of us of this ghastly virus and really most of my time and energy I devote to looking forwards as well of course of trying to learn lessons from what happened in the past.

Andrew Marr:

The reason I’m hanging over that issue about when the country locked up is because right now we’re also wondering is this the right time to unlock? And can I ask you in the same spirit, looking at exactly where the R number is, just hovering around one, whether you’re absolutely sure we’re not going a little fast.

Matt Hancock:

Well we’ve got to be very cautious and we’ve got to have a safety first approach. And I thought that on that Professor Edmunds expressed it exactly as I would, which is that with the R below one, the SAGE estimate taking into account all of the models, not just the one that’s been in the news a lot in the last 24 hours, but all ten of them, is that the R is between .7 and .9. That means that the number of new infections continues to fall. It’s around 5,000, 5 and a half thousand a day on the best estimates, but it’s always hard to estimate that.

Andrew Marr:

I was going to say this is in a sense art not science because these are old figures you’re getting, there’s a time lag and so forth. To an extent you’re flying blind on all of this and on the Cambridge figures the R number is actually above one in the North West of England.

Matt Hancock:

Well, it’s actually science, it’s not art. It is science on which we base these decisions and science is necessarily looking at uncertainty. Now you say it’s flying blind. That’s no longer true. Because the Office for National Statistics Survey and a separate survey by Ipsos, Mori and Imperial are both surveys of actual test results in the community right now, which is different from some of the models that are essentially model predictions.

Andrew Marr:

Okay. So we know we’re going ahead into a period where more shops are going to reopen, where places of worship are going to reopen and so on. What would have to happen now for the government to put the brakes on that?

Matt Hancock:

Well we don’t want R to go above one. We’ve been absolutely clear about that and the estimate is that R is below one and as Professor Edmunds said, the overall estimate taking into account everything we know is that R is below one in each region. I know that in the North West –

Andrew Marr:

What about an increase in the number of infections?

Matt Hancock:

Well, if R goes above one then that leads to an increase to the number of infections. That is by definition, that’s the logic of R. So the reason R is important –

Andrew Marr:

At that point you stop the unlocking?

Matt Hancock:

Well the reason R is important is that if R is below one then the number of infections continues to fall and that’s what we’ve seen over recent weeks.

Andrew Marr:

I’m just saying you get direct data in about the number of infections as well and if that goes up do you reverse the unlocking?

Matt Hancock:

Well we get survey data about the number of infections. We get direct data about the number of positive test results. What I want is everybody who has the infection to come forward with a test. But addressing the substance of your question, absolutely we are open to, if we need to, to taking local action in the first instance to crack down on a local outbreak, as we’ve already done and we’re prepared to do more, and we’ve always been open to having to reverse some of the measures. But we don’t want to do that and that’s why we’re taking a cautious approach and a safety first approach which means for instance from Monday being able to – Monday next – being able to reopen private prayer. I think is incredibly important for many, many people who have been feeling a lack of that spiritual ability to pray in their place of worship. Again, that’s got to be done very carefully and safely and we’re learning as a society how to be more Covid secure.

Andrew Marr:

But we be absolutely clear if there’s an increase in infections the government will re-impose a national lockdown?

Matt Hancock:

We’ve always said that. We’ve always said if necessary and you’ve got to look at the overall approach. This isn’t the number moving about from day to day or week to week, this is the overall strategic approach where the strategy has been clear from the start and the number of those new infections has been coming down and down and down and down.

Andrew Marr:

There’s been a lot of talk about local lockdowns and like many people I don’t completely understand this. When you say a local lockdown does that means a small area around a care home where there might be a problem? Does it mean a town? Does it mean an entire region or city of Britain? What does it mean?

Matt Hancock:

Well preferably the former.

Andrew Marr:

So it could be very small, very localised?

Matt Hancock:

Absolutely. Take Weston-super-Mare. In Weston-super-Mare the action that we took when we saw a spike in the number of infections was to close the hospital to new admissions. We then put in place testing of asymptomatic people in the community around the hospital and those connected to the hospital and we found that it hadn’t led to community spread because of the action that had been taken.

Andrew Marr:

So you just had to close down Weston-super-Mare.

Matt Hancock:

Correct.

Andrew Marr:

We saw people on the beach so it was just around that area.

Matt Hancock:

Correct. Now of course we looked at that and what we might have to do, but we instead simply by stopping the hospital having new people coming in and by very, very significant infection control procedures in the hospital and with the support of the brilliant local Director of Public Health, Leader of the Council, Public Health England at a regional level and of course the NHS we managed to deal with that local outbreak.

Andrew Marr:

It worked.

Matt Hancock:

It worked. And that is a model of how we can do this elsewhere.

Andrew Marr:

So let’s imagine – I won’t name one – but let’s imagine a big city with a lot of people living in it and you see a spike in the R rate, you see a spike in the number of infections in that city. Is it plausible that you then actually try and cut that city off from the rest of the country? Refuse to allow people to travel from wherever it is to someone else in the UK? Do you actually impose that kind of lockdown on part of the UK or is that actually practically impossible?

Matt Hancock:

Well, we do have the legal powers to do that but that is not our starting point and the starting point is actually much more localised than that, to try find a much more localised area within a part of a city. And remember the virus spreads by human contact and therefore if you can get this early enough and spot it early enough, then you will get quite a localised area of the outbreak, because human contact tends to be local by its nature. And so actually the focus is to get as early as possible, as local as possible and things like tackling an outbreak in one hospital or in one very small area is what we’re really aiming at here.

Andrew Marr:

You mentioned track and trace just now. The system’s been up and running I think for ten days now. How many people have been contacted?

Matt Hancock:

Well sadly, I’m not going to tell you that and the reason is because I want to ensure that the statistics authorities are very happy with how we’re collecting and publishing this data before I say anything on the record because we want to get this absolutely right.

Andrew Marr:

16,500 people have tested positive in the last period. Is that the kind of numbers that are actually going to be contacted, because if not, if it’s much lower than that, then the system is not working.

Matt Hancock:

Oh, thousands are being contacted but I won’t go into more details than thousands unfortunately until the statistics authorities are happy with exactly how these things are measured, but we will be publishing full details and a fully range of statistics once that’s all signed off by the statisticians.

Andrew Marr:

The app. You’re wearing your NHS badge, what’s happened to the NHS app? It was supposed to be here three weeks ago and no sign of it.

Matt Hancock:

Well we learnt, one of the things we learnt on the pilot on the Isle of Wight which has been very successful and on the Isle of Wight they’ve done a great job of – through the pilot. One of the things we learnt is to get in place the human based system first, that’s what we’re doing and then the technology can add to that.

Andrew Marr:

But we were told by you and many others that the app was going to be essential. Are you saying it’s not essential and it’s not going to come in, or what?

Matt Hancock:

I’m saying that it will help, it’s an advantage and it will come in but we want to make sure we get this system embedded first with the human contact tracers. After all, the key thing about test and trace isn’t just that you trace the virus, it’s that the people who you find then have to isolate for two weeks and that’s quite a big ask. The evidence is that the overwhelming majority are doing that when the NHS phones them up and asks them to but that’s a very important part of it.

Andrew Marr:

So we’ve talked about tracking, let’s talk about testing specifically. How many people were tested yesterday?

Matt Hancock:

Well, the latest figures we’ve got is for Friday and it was just over 200,000.

Andrew Marr:

200,000 because you were giving us these figures on a daily basis, testing the number of people, and then you stopped.

Matt Hancock:

No, sorry. The number of tests were just over 200,000.

Andrew Marr: Number of people tested I was asking.

Matt Hancock:

Well the number of people tested, we will be bringing that data back. The challenge there is that because we’ve introduced different types of testing, making sure that you ensure that you only count one person once amongst the four pillars is a complicated statistical process. So again that’s with the statisticians to sort.

Andrew Marr:

In short it’s a bit of a muddle at the moment. Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority as you know said:
”The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests at the expense of understanding. It’s not surprising given their inadequacy the data on testing is so widely criticised and often mistrusted. Did that sting?

Matt Hancock:

Well, the thing about it is that it’s not true. There are other ways that you could measure testing to give much higher figures and we chose not to. What we chose – advised by my Permanent Secretary – are the most accurate ways to show the testing that the government is doing, which is the number of tests either directly administered or sent out, because that’s the point at which the government is doing its job. So that’s why we measured it in that way and that’s why I’m so cautious about giving further information before we’ve got this all straightened out with the statistical authorities.

Andrew Marr:

Has everyone living in or working in a care home now been tested?

Matt Hancock:

We have now managed successful to deliver tests to every care home that is eligible both for staff testing and for residents to be tested for every –

Andrew Marr:

So anyone in a care home across Britain watching this programme has been tested or they’re deluded?

Matt Hancock:

Or the tests have been delivered. So the goal we set is that the tests will be delivered by the 6th of June. That was completed yesterday I’m very glad to say, on time and what that means is that of about three quarters of a million people living in just over 9,000 eligible care homes, the tests have been delivered and –

Andrew Marr:

This is the programme, isn’t it, because as David Norgrove said, delivered and tested are two different things. So you can’t actually say they’ve all been tested. Which is what they were promised.

Matt Hancock:

No, they were promised that we would get tests to them.

Andrew Marr:

Okay.

Matt Hancock:

And this is – actually I’m being extremely precise. I have not said that we have tested everybody. What I’ve said is the tests have been delivered. Now the care homes themselves asked us to do it in this way because they say that we were right at the start of this requiring them to send back the tests within a very short space of time. They say actually if you’re running a care home sometimes you may want a couple of days to prepare the residents, to make sure you’re ready. So actually the way that we’re doing it in this way – I’m using my words very precisely – is because the care homes wanted us to do it this way. And I respect that and I think it’s very important to work with the sector.

Andrew Marr:

Now, we talked earlier on about community transmission. You told people not to protest yesterday about Black Lives Matter. They did protest. You’ve seen all of that. What’s your reaction? Do you agree, for instance, with Professor Edmunds, who said there is risk with that?

Matt Hancock:

Yes, I do. I’ve worked all my political life to tackle discrimination and to support diversity. And the problem is that
the virus doesn’t discriminate. And there’s a reason that we have laws in place – temporarily – to say that gatherings of over six people should not happen. And that’s because the virus spreads. And the problem therefore is that – I just wish people – I really hope people make the argument, and I will support them in making that argument. I hope that they will make that case stronger. But please don’t gather in groups of more than six, because in groups of more than six that risks spreading the virus and that risks lives. So it is incredibly important – and think of it this way –

Andrew Marr:

Sorry, are you saying that because of those protests yesterday and they way those people gathered people will die?

Matt Hancock:

The way I’d put it is this: we think that about one in a thousand people has the disease in this country. And so when you
get groups of thousands gathering, of course the likelihood is some of those people will have the disease, and we know that if you come into contact with people that risks spreading the disease. So Professor Edmunds was absolutely right to say it risks a spread, and the risk of the spread of the disease is that it then risks lives. So I bow to nobody in my support for action to make sure there is true equality of opportunity in this country for everybody, no matter their background.

Andrew Marr:

Do you think the police should have been enforcing the law in that case?

Matt Hancock:

Well, I think the police did a fantastic job and I’m very proud of the British police for their professionalism, their restraint in the face of the tiny amount of violence – and I would stress it was a very small amount of violence later on in the day. And I think that we can all be proud that the British police are not like the American police in this way, and I think that that’s a very good thing.

Andrew Marr:

Thinking about diversity in general, when you look at this government, you look at the Cabinet, there’s a very, very stinging, very interesting piece by Sajid Javid in the Sunday Times this morning about inequality and racism in Britain, but there are still no black faces in the Cabinet are there?

Matt Hancock:

Well, hold on, Andrew. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, are both from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Andrew Marr:

But not black.

Matt Hancock:

Well, until the latest reshuffle Kwasi Kwarteng was sitting around the Cabinet table with me. I think that this is one of the most diverse Cabinets in history, and that’s been a record under Boris Johnson and I think – I welcome that. I think that’s a really good thing. And what really matters is tackling inequality of opportunity amongst all sectors of society.

Andrew Marr:

So Public Health England produced a report, as you know, on why BAME people are more likely to die of this disease. But there were no recommendations in that report and a lot of MPs, mostly opposition MPs, were really, really concerned about that. Surely it’s not enough to say, ‘here’s the problem,’ you have to have some kind of answer to it.

Matt Hancock:

Well, we have been taking action all the way through. We didn’t wait for the report to take action.

Andrew Marr:

As Health Secretary what are you doing to better protect BAME people from this disease?

Matt Hancock:

In the first instance, the occupations that are more frequently taken by people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are also some of those that have the biggest risks of infection. So, for instance –

Andrew Marr:

Cleaners, nurses, doctors.

Matt Hancock:

Absolutely. And – or in fact all staff in hospitals. But the thing is to protect that whole occupation and everybody in it. Also those who are critical on the frontline in public transport, for instance. Bus drivers, taxi drivers. So we’re taking forward the PHE work, we have already – PHE have done the analysis that shows that this is a very significant problem, and Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Equalities, is taking it forward to ask exactly that question why.

How much of it is down to occupation, for instance, how much of it is down to co-morbidities, how much of it is down to housing – because we know that housing inequality has an impact.

Andrew Marr:

In a very balanced response, she also said that the report had gaps and hasn’t gone far enough. ‘There was more that I was hoping to see from this review.’

Matt Hancock:

Well, if it had gone far enough then I wouldn’t have asked her to take the work forward with the prime minister, who obviously cares very deeply about getting this agenda right.

Andrew Marr:

The big picture. We’ve had 40,000 deaths and probably a lot more than that in this country, might be 55, might be 60,000. The prime minister said that he took full responsibility and the government have been doing everything they could in tackling coronavirus, ‘and I am very proud of our record.’ Can I put it to you that being very proud of our record, in terms of the number deaths that we have had in this country, is not right?

Matt Hancock:

Well, I mourn each one of those deaths. And in a way, you know, 40,000 – the number is less important than the fact that each of these is somebody who has died, with a family who will never be the same again. And we have put unprecedented amounts of action into place, right across the board, to deal with the crisis. And we’re fully accountable for that.

Andrew Marr:

You’re working very, very hard, you’re probably putting your life and soul into this but are you really proud?

Matt Hancock:

Well, my team, I’m very proud of the work my team have done. Particularly, you know, starting up of test and trace system from scratch and getting the testing system going. Making sure that we flatten the curve. Protecting the NHS, building those Nightingale hospitals, making sure the NHS wasn’t overrun. So there’s enormous amounts of things that I’m very proud of.

Andrew Marr:

40,000 or more dead?

Matt Hancock:

Well, of course nobody wants to see a pandemic at all.

Andrew Marr:

Matt Hancock, thanks very much indeed for talking to us
today.