Health secretary Matt Hancock has rejected Dominic Cummings’ claim that he lied to Boris Johnson over testing for people going into care homes in the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, telling MPs that clinical advice at the time was that this was the wrong thing to do.
Mr Hancock was confronted with a series of bombshell allegations from the prime minister’s former top adviser as he gave evidence to two Commons committees, who last month heard Cummings say that the health secretary should have been sacked “15 to 20 times” for his failings over Covid-19.
But he issued a veiled warning to MPs not to give credence to the former adviser’s claims, telling them: “I’m not responsible for anybody else’s testimony, but I am really pleased to have the chance to come here to be able to tell you the truth.”
He insisted that he had only ever told the PM that he would ensure patients were tested before entering care homes “when tests were available”, which was not the case for some months after the pandemic struck.
And he said that medical experts warned that, with the four-day turnaround for Covid tests available in March 2020, there was a danger that patients would catch the virus in hospital while awaiting responses and be sent to care homes with false negative tests.
“On care homes, throughout we followed the clinical advice,” Mr Hancock told the joint inquiry of the Commons health and science committees.
“The evidence has shown that the strongest route of the virus into care homes was community transmission. Staff testing was the most important thing for keeping people safe in care homes. That’s the clinical advice we received.”
He denied Mr Cummings’ allegation that the prime minister hauled him in to explain why patients had been released to homes without tests. Asked whether Mr Johnson expressed surprise about the situation when he came out of hospital following treatment for Covid in April 2020, Mr Hancock replied: “Not that I can remember.”
Public Health England later found only 1.6 per cent of cases in homes involved people bringing the virus in from hospitals, he said.
The health secretary said he had “no idea” why Mr Cummings had taken against him and pointedly told MPs that “government has operated better over the past six months” since the adviser’s resignation in November.
He insisted he had received “wholesome support” from Mr Johnson throughout the pandemic and learnt of Mr Cummings’ effort to get him sacked only because the adviser briefed newspapers about it.
And he told the inquiry: “You can’t respond to a pandemic by pointing fingers.”
Mr Hancock said it was “telling” that Mr Cummings had not provided documentary evidence to back up his allegations, as requested by the committees.
And science committee chair Greg Clark said that the former adviser’s claims “must be counted as unproven” until Cummings hands over a cache of emails and text messages he is believed to hold.
Mr Hancock rejected Mr Cummings’ claim that he always promised to “follow the science” in order to be able to blame the scientists if anything went wrong. He insisted he tried not to use the phrase, because politicians were “guided by the science” rather than following it unquestioningly.
And he denied that he tried to blame the Treasury or NHS bosses for shortages of personal protective equipment at the start of the epidemic, telling MPs that he had simply requested the removal of a Treasury cap on the maximum price to be paid for PPE so that the UK could source supplies as prices soared worldwide.
Mr Cummings last month told the inquiry that Mr Johnson’s top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill had pushed for Hancock’s dismissal because he repeatedly lied about the coronavirus situation in official meetings.
But asked today if he had ever said anything to the PM which he knew to be untrue, Mr Hancock replied: “No.”
He said he had “absolutely no idea” whether senior civil servant Helen MacNamara had warned in March that there was “no plan” to deal with coronavirus and the government was going to kill thousands of people, as Mr Cummings sensationally claimed.
“I don’t understand that testimony,” he said. “There was a plan and at that point we had published it.”
As early as 31 January 2020, the government’s Cobra emergencies committee had signed off a worst-case planning assumption that as many as 820,000 people could die in the UK as a result of Covid-19, he told MPs. But it was not until early March that it became clear that the pandemic was following that worst-case course.
“Knowing that that was the reasonable worst-case scenario, we planned for it,” he told MPs.
“The week beginning 9 March, what happened is that the data started to follow the reasonable worst-case scenario, and by the end of that week, the updated modelling, showed essentially that we were on the track of something close to that reasonable worst-case scenario.”
Mr Hancock insisted he was right to say that “everybody got the Covid treatment that they needed”, because the NHS at no point became overwhelmed by the pandemic.
Despite “local problems”, there was “never a national shortage of PPE”, he insisted.
And he told MPs: “There’s no evidence that I have seen that a shortage of PPE provision led to anybody dying of Covid.”
Mr Hancock said: “PPE provision was tight and it was difficult throughout the world, but we did manage. It was pretty close sometimes, but we did manage to ensure that … at a national level we had the PPE, and then distribution was a challenge to all areas.”
Mr Hancock said he “bitterly regrets” that he did not early in the pandemic overrule the scientific consensus that people with no symptoms were unlikely to pass on coronavirus.
He said that he had “an instinct” that transmission was occurring and raised the issue as early as 27 January 2020. But he said he was told by the World Health Organisation that reports this was happening in China were probably based on a “mistranslation”.
It was only later that the government accepted asymptomatic transmission as a reality, requiring much stricter social distancing restrictions to rein in the outbreak, he said.
And he told MPs: “I should have stuck to my guns and said ‘Even if it’s uncertain, we should base policy on that’.”
Mr Hancock defended his claim that the government tried to put a protective ring round care homes from the start of the outbreak.
“The most important words in that sentence are that we ‘tried to’,” he told MPs. “It was very hard for a number of reasons, some of which are fixed and some aren’t.”
As health secretary, he said he had “extremely limited” powers over care homes, which are the remit of local councils. It was “extraordinary” that the Department of Health did not even have a list of homes, he told MPs.
“We simply didn’t have the levers, and we had to invent a whole series of them,” said Mr Hancock.
“We put in finding to make sure PPE was as available as possible. We set out guidance for care homes – the first guidance was on 25 February. Then later, when we had the testing capacity in July, we brought in weekly testing of staff, which I think is the single biggest improvement in terms of protecting residents.”
Deaths as a proportion of residents were lower in the UK than in many European states, where some homes saw all residents die, he said.
Mr Hancock defended his decision to set a target of carrying out 100,000 coronavirus tests a day.
“The purpose of the target was to galvanise the system. It worked,” he said.
“The prime minister was absolutely four-square behind me and gave me his full, whole-hearted support in hitting this target because he, like me, knew we needed a radical increase in testing.”
Mr Hancock said that in January 2020 he had ordered a push to develop a vaccine as rapidly as possible.
“I said I want one within a year and will throw the full resources of the state in making that happen,” he said.
But he said that there would have been no point in the UK shutting its borders in spring last year to try to keep Covid-19 out, so long as China was allowing people to leave the country. He pointed to Italy and the US which suffered severe outbreaks despite tougher border restrictions.
Clinical advice was that doing the same in the UK would have slowed the development of the disease by a week at most, he said.
Mr Hancock said that the “number one challenge” facing the UK at the outset of the pandemic was the lack of a large-scale testing programme.
He said that no-one was “better placed” to provide this capacity than the much-criticised Health Security Agency chief executive Dido Harding.
Defending her performance, he told MPs: “Building a plane in flight is harder than flying a plane that has been built for a while… It was about the size of Tesco and she built it in six months.”
Recent experience of the Delta variant in places like Bolton showed that the surge test and trace system was working in bringing case rates down, he said.
He defended the decision not to make up the salary of those forced into quarantine, which critics say has led to as many as 80 per cent of people ignoring orders to self-isolate after coming into contact with the virus.
Any such offer could have been “gamed” by people naming a wide range of friends and associates as contacts who might have been infected, he said.