Health secretary Matt Hancock came out fighting at a joint Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee hearing and refuted claims by Dominic Cummings that he was a liar who should have been sacked 15 to 20 times.
The Cabinet minister appeared in front of MPs to defend his handling of the pandemic after the prime minister’s former aide pointedly attacked him when he gave evidence to the same select committee a fortnight ago.
Hancock has always denied Cummings' claims, and doubled down on his defence yesterday morning.
“It is telling that no evidence has been provided yet. But there is a reason for that I think," he said.
"Throughout this I have gotten out of bed in the morning with the view and the attitude that my job is to do everything I can to protect lives and get the country out of the pandemic.
“I have tried to do that with an approach of honesty and integrity, and critically, answering questions in public and in private to the best of my ability.
"Sometimes you have to say you don't know because you are operating in a world where there are huge judgments being made with imperfect information, often at great pace."
Other key points from the four hour long evidence session include:
- The Indian/Delta variant now makes up 91% of all new cases in the UK;
- He claimed data from earlier this year did not support closing the borders to protect from the variant;
- Hancock insisted there was "no evidence" that PPE shortages led to anybody dying from Covid; and
- He said he "bitterly" regretted not trusting his "instinct" that the pandemic response should include an assumption that asymptomatic transmission would play a significant role.
The Health Secretary defended the timing of lockdown, saying acting sooner would have meant "overruling a scientific consensus".
In last month's hearing, Cummings heavily criticised his old boss Boris Johnson and a host of senior officials when he faced the joint inquiry, but he reserved his fiercest criticism for Hancock, reigniting a decades-old feud between the two men, with a series of explosive claims.
Potentially the most damaging was his suggestion the health secretary had told Johnson and others that people were being tested for Covid-19 before they were transferred into care homes at the start of the crisis, but knew this was not true.
Speaking at the start of yesterday's session, co-chair Greg Clark confirmed Cummings is yet to provide the committee with any evidence of this, missing the 4 June deadline. "If serious allegations are made against an individual they should be corroborated with evidence and it must be counted as unproven without it,” Clark said.
Hancock insisted he had told the prime minister that people would be tested before returning to care homes only when testing was available and refuted that he had every told any untruths to officials.
“We set out a policy that people would be tested when tests were available. Then I set about building the testing capacity to deliver on that,” he said.
"On the care home policy we followed the clinical advice. The challenge was, not just that we didn't have the testing capacity, but also that the clinical advice was that a test on someone who didn't have any symptoms could easily return a false negative and therefore give false assurance that that person did not have the disease."
Hancock added a four-day turnaround time in the early months of the pandemic also created a risk that someone who had been left waiting in hospital for a result could potentially be exposed to the virus.
Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show last weekend the health secretary said the government brought in “the policy of wanting to test everybody who went into a care home as soon as we had those tests available”.
But he did admit “there were not enough tests available to test everybody” and the clinical advice said hospitals were a more dangerous place to catch Covid-19 than in a care home.
Polling this week showed the public do not believe him, with a survey for the i newspaper revealing a greater proportion of people (44%) think Hancock lied about testing hospital patients before transferring them to care homes than think he is telling the truth (26%).
Despite claiming “right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes”, there were 32,154 deaths from Covid-19 in care homes in England and Wales between 28 December 2019 and 14 May this year.
There have been new claims in the Guardian that some of the UK’s biggest care home operators repeatedly warned the Department for Health and Social Care about the risk of not testing those people being discharged from hospitals into care homes right at the start of the crisis.
Hancock also refuted suggestions by Cummings that he lied about the availability of treatments against coronavirus.
“In the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required," Cummings claimed in last month's hearing.
“He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”
Hancock told parliament the day after that he has “been straight with people in public and in private throughout”, but he is likely to face tough questions on this, as well as other issues of pandemic preparedness.
Asked by Clark about the reasons for Cummings’ accusations against the cabinet secretary, Hancock added: "I have no idea. I worked directly with the PM from the start of this. Of course I worked with his aides and his team as well. I have no idea."
Cummings said in mid-April last year Hancock “told us in the cabinet room everything is fine with PPE, we’ve got it all covered”, despite reports from across the health and social care sectors there were severe shortages.
He told MPs he came back to work after recovering from having the virus himself to find a “disaster”, and claimed Hancock tried to blame Simon Stevens, the NHS England chief executive.
But Hancock hit back at the claims on Thursday saying they were "not a fair recollection" of the situation.
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter of CSW's sister title Politics Home, where a version of this story first appeared. John Johnston is a political reporter at Politics Home.