Matt Hancock told the former medical director of Public Health England (PHE) “not to patronise” him in the weeks leading up to the pandemic.
Professor Yvonne Doyle was also told to distance herself from the then-Health Secretary, despite the developing crisis.
It came after an interview she did stating there “could well be” people with Covid-19 in the country prior to the first cases of the virus being confirmed.
In a witness statement to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, Prof Doyle said her “main concern” in early 2020 was that her “situational awareness advice was not always welcome”.
She said “there was a distance” between herself and ministers, particularly Mr Hancock, at the end of January and “quite a bit” of February.
“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, very unclear about transmission at that point,” Prof Doyle added.
“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.”
Prof 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”.
Prof 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.”
Prof Doyle said she “didn’t make any fuss” about the incident and “did eventually” do more media interviews.
Inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor highlighted that it was a time when Prof 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”.
Prof 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.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub