The Health Secretary said he instinctively feared the Chinese document was right and he now “bitterly regrets” not challenging the World Health Organisation view on the risks of asymptomatic transmission.
“I should have stuck with my guns and said even if it’s uncertain and even if it’s relatively small we should base policy on that,” he admitted to MPs on Thursday.
If the Government had swiftly adopted a policy to combat Covid based on up to a third of people getting it without showing symptoms, it could have dramatically changed the course of the pandemic in the UK, which has seen at least 127,860 die within 28 days of testing positive for the virus.
Appearing before a joint session of the Commons science and technology, and health and social care, committees, Mr Hancock said: “I raised the prospect of asymptomatic transmission on the 27th of January with the Chief Medical Officer (Professor Chris Whitty) and others.
“He took it away and they discused it at SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) on the 28th.
“I called the WHO on the 29th and I’ve got the quote here.
“I was told it was highly likely that the message may have been confused by translation issues but that this is unclear.”
He also explained that there had been no documented asymptomatic transmission cases.
“I should have stuck with my guns and said even if it’s uncertain and even if it’s relatively small we should base policy on that,” he added.
However, science committee chairman Greg Clark pointed to SAGE minutes of January 28 that said some asymptomatic transmission was possible.
The Health Secretary said policy was finally changed in April after a conclusion there was “significant” asymptomatic transmission.
But he revealed that he wishes he had intervened and changed policy earlier as a precaution.
He told the committee: “There was a global scientific consensus based on decades of expert work that coronaviruses do not transmit from people who don’t have symptoms - and this is wrong.
“It’s wrong because this is a novel pathogen
“I heard evidence from China that there was asymptomatic transmission in January.
“I also remember talking to my German opposite number and they had seen some evidence in Germany.
“I asked the scientists, and in fact I was so worried about it I raised a call with the World Health Organisation. And I was told on that call, that with respect to China this was likely a mistranslation.
“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 transmission until we know that that isn’t, rather than the other way around.
“But when you’re faced with a global consensus ... it is hard to do that.”
No shortage of PPE
In a lengthy session before the MPs, Mr Hancock claimed that Britain never had a shortage of personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic though he admitted there had been “local challenges”.
He also said he had “no idea” why Cummings, in an earlier appearance before the joint committees, had branded him a “liar” who should have been sacked on numerous occasions.
In a cutting riposte to Mr Cummings, who left No 10 before Christmas, Mr Hancock said: “The best thing to say is that Government has operated better over the past six months.”
Asked if he knew at the time that Mr Cummings was campaigning to get him sacked, the minister said: “Yes, because he briefed the newspapers at the time.” Mr Clark put a string of the ex-Downing Street adviser’s allegations to Mr Hancock including:
* Whether on personal protective equipment, had he said in April 2020 or briefed that the shortages were the fault of the then NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, stating “It’s not my fault, they blocked approvals.”
Mr Hancock responded: “That is not a fair recollection of the situation.”
He explained there had been a limit on how much could be paid for PPE but that this was lifted by Mr Sunak once it was raised with him and he was “incredibly helpful” in driving through the change.
The Cabinet minister added: “We managed to get to this position where despite local challenges, and I don’t deny at all there were challenges in individual areas, there was never a national shortage of PPE because of the action that we took.”
However, shadow health minister Justin Madders: “Many health professionals spent the first few weeks and months of the pandemic rationing PPE or going without, fearing for themselves and their colleagues.
“Hancock should have used this opportunity to apologise to these healthcare workers for badly letting them down, not defending his abysmal record.”
Asked if he had ever said anything to the Prime Minister that he knew not to be true, Mr Hancock responded: “No.”
Mr Hancock was then pressed on whether he said that everyone who needed treatment got the treatment that they required, having been told by Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Whitty that people did not get the treatment that they deserved.
“I did absolutely say both in private and in public that everybody got the Covid treatment that they needed,” he replied.
“I’m very proud of the fact that with the NHS we delivered on that during the pandemic because it was critical.”
He added that he had checked with Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty and there was “no point” when he was advised that people were “not getting the treatment they needed”.
He stressed: “On the contrary, one of the things that we succeeded in doing through the entire response to this pandemic has been to protect the NHS so that people have always had access to treatment for Covid.”
Asked if he had told Mr Johnson in March 2020 that people in hospital would be tested before going back to care homes, Mr Hancock replied: “We set out a policy that people would be tested when tests were available.
“Then, I set about building the testing capacity to be able to deliver on that.”
He added that clinical advice gave three reasons for this approach, and this guidance had been followed.
He emphasised that the “challenge” was not just a lack of testing capacity, but the clinical advice was that a test on someone without symptoms could “easily” return a false negative and give false assurance that the individual did not have the virus.
Clinicians were also worried, he argued, that because it took four days to turn around tests, people who were negative could still catch the disease after being tested and before leaving hospital to return to a care home.
“So the advice was the most important thing was infection protection control in care homes and the evidence has shown that the strongest route of the virus into care homes unfortunately is community transmission and so it was staff testing that was the most important thing for keeping people safe in care homes,” he stated.
Staff testing was introduced as soon as there was capacity to do so, he added.
However, care home chiefs have strongly rejected Mr Hancock’s claim that a “protective ring” was thrown around their institutions, with accusations that hundreds if not thousands of people died unnecessarily.
Mr Hancock also strongly defended his personal decision to set a target of 100,000 Covid tests per day, which Mr Cummings attacked as a mistake that diverted resources from establishing Test and Trace capacity.
Mr Clark stressed that Mr Cummings had been asked to provide evidence by Friday June 4 to back up his allegations against the Health Secretary.
The senior Tory added: “We have not received that evidence, nor any explanation as to why that has not been available.”
He and health committee chairman Jeremy Hunt believed that if serious claims were made they should be backed up by evidence and so the allegations should be viewed as “unproven” without it.