Matt Hancock said the UK should have gone into lockdown three weeks before it did which would have saved “many, many lives”.
The former health secretary told the pandemic inquiry he regarded February 28 2020 as the “moment that the centre of Government, led by the Prime Minister, really started to come into action”.
He said “with hindsight” the UK should have locked down when Italy did in February but added that at that time there was still “enormous uncertainty” about the scale of the pandemic.
He said: “The number of cases was still very low, in fact, there were only 12 cases reported on March 1, and the costs of what I’m proposing were known and huge.
“So I defend the actions that were taken by the government at the time, knowing what we did, but with hindsight, that’s the moment should have done it, three weeks, and it would have been would have saved many, many lives.
“Having obviously thought about this and reflected on this a huge deal over the last few years, the first moment we realistically could have really cracked it was on March 2, three weeks earlier than we did.”
Mr Hancock also used his evidence to accuse Dominic Cummings of creating a “culture of fear” in Government that undermined the pandemic response.
The former minister painted Boris Johnson’s ex-chief adviser as a “malign actor” who subjected his staff to abuse as they grappled with the emergence of Covid-19.
Mr Cummings sought to grab power from the then-prime minister while shutting out ministers from key meetings, Mr Hancock told the UK’s official pandemic inquiry.
Mr Hancock played a key role in the response to the pandemic but his performance has been repeatedly criticised by a number of other witnesses including Mr Cummings, who has branded him a “proven liar”.
Hitting back as he gave evidence on Thursday, the former health secretary said Mr Cummings had attempted to exert influence over decision-making in a way that was “inappropriate in a democracy”.
“As the Cobra system was running in February, the prime minister’s chief adviser decided that he didn’t like the Cobra system – that’s on the record – and he decided instead to take all of the major daily decisions into his office and he invited a subset of the people who needed to be there to these meetings,” Mr Hancock said.