Matt Hancock has hit back at Dominic Cummings’ explosive claims that he lied repeatedly to the public and government colleagues during the Covid-19 pandemic. The health secretary, summoned to the Commons to answer an urgent question, told MPs: “These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true. I've been straight with people in public and in private throughout.”
However, he deliberately refused to engage with what he admitted were “serious allegations”. This is in line with the government’s wider strategy not to rebut Cummings’s long list of claims about how the pandemic was mishandled.
Hancock dodged Cummings’s incendiary charge that tens of thousands of people died unnecessarily. At every opportunity, he turned the spotlight on the successful vaccine rollout. Boris Johnson and his ministers have adapted the US political strategists’ mantra of “it’s the economy, stupid”, to “it’s the vaccine, stupid”.
They hope voters will be much more interested in the current state of play – the vaccine and the easing of restrictions – than what happened last year, and take comfort from opinion polls suggesting the public give Johnson the benefit of the doubt over mistakes early in the pandemic.
Yet Hancock is not being as “straight” with us as he claims. He stressed his commitment to “openness and transparency” but is refusing to publish an internal government “lessons learned” review. We are being asked to take it on trust that ministers are learning lessons as they go along, but how do we know? For this government, transparency is a very flexible friend.
Hancock was given some cover by Jeremy Hunt, chair of the Health Select Committee and a former health secretary, who said Cummings’s claims should be “treated as unproven” until he provides the evidence to support them, as Cummings told yesterday’s seven-hour session he would.
Yet it would be wrong and untenable for Hancock and Johnson to bat away Cummings’s detailed critique until the independent inquiry that will not begin until next spring. Hancock will surely have to provide a point-by-point rebuttal when he appears before the same two select committees on 10 June. The families of those who died deserve immediate answers, not least over Hancock’s non-existent “protective ring” around care homes.
There are also big question marks over his handling of mass testing, personal protective equipment and what he said about the NHS’s ability to cope. We also need to hear from Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary, who Cummings claims “lost confidence” in Hancock’s honesty.
In the Commons, loyalist Tory MPs inevitably rallied around Hancock, and obeyed their whips’ edict to talk about the vaccine. Hancock insisted: “Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in government.” That was a defence of his goal of 100,000 tests a day but he avoided Cummings’s claim that it harmed medium and long-term testing capacity.
The health secretary allowed himself a sideswipe at Cummings, who left Downing Street last November. He said: “Over the past six months, people have seen that governing has become a little easier.” Indeed, some of Cummings’s former colleagues tell me that No 10 is a more efficient, calmer and happier place since his departure. In private, some Hancock allies are giving the pugilistic Cummings a dose of his own medicine, accusing him of “incoherent, inconsistent, scattergun” attacks and being a “deluded fantasist”. One told The Times he is a “psychopath” (copyright David Cameron) and a “complete snake”.
That the Cummings narrative is self-serving does not make it wrong. The danger for ministers is that many of his arguments fit with the facts as we know them. The 30,000-plus deaths in care homes were not the imagination of a “deluded fantasist”.
No one at Westminster doubts Hancock’s energy, or his ambition. He gave a typically confident performance in the Commons on Thursday. But neither he nor Johnson can be sure “The Cummings Show” will be a one-day wonder. The snake may return to bite them again. Cummings is now combing through his emails, WhatsApp messages and notes before deciding which ones to submit in evidence to the select committees.
If he can back up his extraordinary claims with damaging words from the mouths of Hancock and Johnson, then Cummings could yet move the dial of the public’s verdict on the government’s handling of the pandemic.