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Watch: Matt Hancock claims he was told asymptomatic transmission evidence was 'mistranslated'
Matt Hancock has said the World Health Organization (WHO) told him China's evidence of asymptomatic coronavirus transmission was likely mistranslated.
The health secretary made the extraordinary claim as he was quizzed by MPs about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
He claimed he had an “instinct” at the beginning of the outbreak in January last year that contrary to “scientific consensus”, people could carry and transmit the virus when they do not have symptoms.
One-and-a-half years into the pandemic, this is now widely recognised. It's understood about a third of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic.
Hancock was appearing at a joint meeting of the House of Commons health and social care and science and technology committees, two weeks after Dominic Cummings’ appearance in which Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser made a series of explosive allegations about the health secretary.
Hancock told the committees on Thursday he “heard evidence from China that there was asymptomatic transmission in January”, as well as from Germany.
“I asked the scientists to look into this and in fact I was so worried about it, I arranged a call with the WHO and I was told on that call that with respect to China, this was likely a mistranslation.”
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had reported on 28 January there was “limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission”.
Hancock did not say exactly when the phone call was. He would only say it was at the end of January, meaning it could have been after the Sage report.
The health secretary went on: “After that we did not get the evidence from China which could have proved it.
“So I was in a situation of not having hard evidence that a global scientific consensus of decades was wrong, but having an instinct that it was.
"And 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 there isn’t’.
“But when you’re faced with a global consensus and don’t have the evidence that you’re right and this scientific consensus is wrong, it is hard to do that.”
Boris Johnson has previously said under-estimating asymptomatic transmission was the "single biggest false assumption that we made".
The UK's first coronavirus cases were confirmed on 31 January.
It was only over the following months, when infections had rapidly and disastrously spread across the country, that further evidence began to emerge on asymptomatic transmission. It was as late as 2 April that the government was acknowledging this possibility.
Watch: Hancock has 'no idea' why Cummings had dispute with him