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Matt Hancock has said he never lied to the prime minister and defended himself against a slew of allegations made by Dominic Cummings, from care homes to testing and PPE, saying it was “telling” the former aide had not provided evidence.
At a parliamentary hearing the health secretary barely mentioned Cummings by name but made a series of veiled digs at his conduct in government.
During his evidence:
He denied there were national shortages of PPE, saying though there had been individual cases of difficulty, no area had run out of stocks.
Defended his 100,000 testing target, which Cummings said interfered with the system but which Hancock said had worked.
Claimed all patients had received the Covid treatment they needed, despite Cummings’ claim that the chief scientific adviser had said otherwise.
He also defended the government’s actions in the run-up to the November lockdown, a time when according to Cummings the prime minister was forcefully against another lockdown. He said the spread of the virus had been far more regional, rather than the initial wave when the spread had been across the country.
“Decisions are made through discussion,” he said. “Of course, people have a tendency for one side of the argument or the other at times, but actually at the moment everybody is very aligned.”
Despite verbal assurances, Cummings did not provide written evidence for a number of serious allegations against Hancock and others, including the prime minister, according to the committee’s co-chair Greg Clark, who said the allegations should be “counted as unproven without it”.
Hancock said it was “telling that no evidence has been provided” about some of the claims Cummings made. “I can be quite forceful when I’m trying to get something through if it needs to happen,” he said. “But that’s what you have to do, and crucially, you have to bring the team with you.”
Hancock said he had “no idea” why Cummings held such a negative view of him, but said he knew the aide had wanted the prime minister to fire him, adding that “he briefed the newspapers at the time”. He said he had “of course” raised objections about this and that he had had “the prime minister’s wholesome support all the way through”.
“The best thing to say about this, and this will be corroborated by lots of people in government, is that government has operated better over the past six months,” he said, in reference to Cummings’ departure.
“Trust across the UK in the measures that the government have taken has increased significantly. I’ve noticed as secretary of state that it is now more efficient, more effective, there’s better communication inside of government, there’s better sense of teamwork, and that is so important in a pandemic, and the public have undoubtedly noticed this improvement.”
Questioned as part of a joint inquiry by the Commons science and health committees on 26 May, Cummings said Hancock should have been fired for “at least 15 to 20 things – including lying to everybody on multiple occasions”.
In another veiled dig at Cummings, Hancock said he had always worked collegiately and transparently. “I know that I can face the mirror each morning and despite my deep regret about the deaths that have occurred, I know that I did that with the right motive and being straight with people throughout.”
Hancock said getting hold of PPE was a huge challenge but there was “never a national shortage” and the government had worked to remove bureaucracy that put a limit on the price of PPE, so it could pay “at the top of the market” for protective equipment.
He also denied claims he had assured Boris Johnson that all patients would be tested before they returned to care homes. “My job was to build that testing capacity and with the team we absolutely did,” he said.
He admitted community testing had ended early in the pandemic because there had not been sufficient testing capacity and there were concerns over false negatives. “Testing was at no point scaled down, on the contrary, we were driving up testing capacity all the way through,” he said.
However, he said he was not advised in the run-up to the first lockdown whether expanding community testing was an option and said Britain’s capacity was very low.
“So one of the reasons we had to reduce the use of community testing is because we didn’t have a big enough capacity and we had to target the testing at where it’s clinically most needed,” Hancock said. “The clinical advice I received is that testing people asymptomatically would lead to false negatives.”
Hancock said that while the prime minister was “absolutely, four-square behind me” on the idea of setting a target of 100,000 tests a day, he did not realise at the time that Cummings was “not as supportive as I might have hoped”, only learning this in the former aide’s testimony. He said: “I was a bit surprised by the testimony that he didn’t think we should have a target.”
Questioned by the Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey, Hancock said he would happily pass the committees copies of clinical advice on testing from health officials to him in the key period of January to April last year, and his responses.
He also further clarified what his promise was on testing people who were leaving hospitals for care homes. Rather than him having said that this would happen immediately, as Cummings had claimed, Hancock said the only pledge was “that we would introduce this testing when we had the capacity to do that”.
Quizzed on asymptomatic transmission, Hancock said he was uneasy when he heard the limited evidence, so sought guidance from the World Health Organization, which said the evidence from China was probably a “mistranslation”. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) first noted some evidence of asymptomatic transmission on 28 January.
“I bitterly regret that I didn’t overrule that scientific advice at the start and say we should proceed on the basis that there is asymptomatic transmission until we know that there isn’t rather than the other way round,” he said.
Hancock said he had also questioned official advice that the British people would not accept lockdowns or an intrusive test-and-trace system. “I was always of the view that people would go for it … because the mission and the motive was so important,” he said.
Asked later if he had said to the prime minister that scientists could be blamed for the handling of the pandemic early on in the crisis, he said: “I don’t think so”.
Hancock said he remembered the moment around the cabinet table “when I said: ‘We are going to have to tell everybody to stop all social contact’… I remember thinking: ‘This is the most extraordinary thing that I’ve ever said’”
He said Boris Johnson had backed him in that moment in March. “The prime minister said: ‘Yes, we are. You’d better go and tell them.’”
A spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice movement said Hancock “blames everyone but himself and the government for the handling of the pandemic”, and said the health secretary had “shirked the opportunity to show humility, instead choosing to speak on something else while not denying what we all know: the late lockdown cost lives”.