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Britain’s former top civil servant urged Boris Johnson to remove Matt Hancock as health secretary during the pandemic, the Covid-19 public inquiry has heard.

Lord Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary between 2018 and 2020, suggested in a private message to Simon Case, then Number 10 permanent secretary, that Hancock should be fired to “save lives and protect the NHS” in 2020.

Sedwill, who was succeeded as cabinet secretary by Case, told the inquiry on Wednesday that it had been “gallows humour” to use the phrase repeatedly deployed by the government at the height of the health crisis.

In an extract from Johnson’s witness statement that was shown to the inquiry, the former prime minister wrote: “I do not think that I received any advice from Sir Mark Sedwill that Matt should be removed.”

In response, Sedwill said that while he had not given “formal advice” to sack Hancock, the then prime minister would have been “under no illusion as to my view about what was best”.

The inquiry is examining the government’s response to the pandemic, including the UK’s preparedness and senior decision-making, and is due to run until the summer of 2026.

Last week, the inquiry heard that Hancock displayed “nuclear levels of confidence” in early 2020 and would regularly tell the cabinet there were plans in place to deal with the virus when this was not the case.

Helen MacNamara, deputy cabinet secretary when the pandemic began, said a “pattern” developed in which Hancock would tell officials “something was absolutely fine” only for them to later discover “it was very, very far from fine”.

Asked about how “damaging” and “destructive” this loss of confidence in Hancock was among officials, Sedwill said: “Clearly, damaging.”

His comments came as the inquiry was shown diary entries from 2020 in which Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, wrote that Sedwill had called Johnson’s administration “brutal and useless”. In evidence, Sedwill did not dispute that he had made such a remark.

In separate WhatsApp messages between Sedwill and his successor, Case described Johnson’s top team of advisers as “feral”.

“It is like taming wild animals,” Case wrote in June 2020. “Nothing in my past experience has prepared me for this madness. The PM and the people he chooses to surround himself with are basically feral.” In response, Sedwill said: “I have the bite marks.”

Sedwill apologised to people whose loved ones died from Covid after Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser when the virus struck, told the inquiry that he had suggested that ministers encourage “chickenpox parties” in order to achieve herd immunity.

Last week, the inquiry was shown messages from 2020 in which Cummings warned Johnson that Hancock was “unfit for this job” and had “killed people”.

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