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Kent MPs grill Health Secretary Matt Hancock over government handling of the Covid-19 pandemic

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Matt Hancock said he has "no idea" why Dominic Cummings slammed his handling of the pandemicas he answered questions regarding the response to Covid-19.

The Health Secretary was grilled by a cross-party committee, which included Tunbridge WellsMP Greg Clark and the SevenoaksMP Laura Trott.

Matt Hancock is giving evidence to MPs Picture: Parliament TV
Matt Hancock is giving evidence to MPs Picture: Parliament TV

Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee Mr Clark confirmed Prime Minister Boris Johnson's former aide had to date provided no evidence to back up his explosive claims, which painted a picture of chaos at the centre of government.

Mr Hancock said: "It is telling that no evidence has been provided yet. I welcome this opportunity to tell you the truth of what has happened".

He vehemently denied Cummings' claims and said the government had "operated better" since he left Downing Street.

Giving evidence to the same committee a fortnight ago, Mr Cummings said: “There’s no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect.

“I think the Secretary of State for Health is certainly one of those people. I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should be fired, so did the Cabinet Secretary, so did many other senior people.”

Mr Hancock had already dismissed the claims before today.

Dominic Cummings slammed Matt Hancock's handling of the crisis Picture: Yui Mok/PA
Dominic Cummings slammed Matt Hancock's handling of the crisis Picture: Yui Mok/PA

Asked if he knew the former adviser wanted him to be fired, Mr Hancock told MPs: “Yes, because he briefed the newspapers at the time. Or somebody briefed the newspapers; I now have a better idea who that was.”

He added: “I think the best thing to say about this, and this will be corroborated by lots of people in government, is that government has operated better in the past six months.”

Mr Hancock said he had “no idea at the time that there were others who were not as supportive as I might have hoped” regarding his 100,000 tests-a-day target, adding he was a “bit surprised” by Mr Cummings’ testimony on that point.

Mr Cummings told the committee that Mr Hancock’s public promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April 2020 was “incredibly stupid” because it was already an internal goal.

Mr Hancock told MPs the Prime Minister had always been “four square” behind him on the target.

“Throughout this I have got out of bed every morning with the view and the attitude that my job is to do everything I could to save lives and get this country out of the pandemic,” he said.

“I approached that with a mission-driven determination to make it happen. I tried to do that with an approach of honesty and integrity and critically answering questions both in public and in private to the best of my ability.”

Asked why the government had missed for six to eight weeks early in 2020 the signs that the death toll could be large, the Cabinet minister said: “Well, I would absolutely say that we knew about this problem from the start.

“And the challenge in those early weeks of March was making a massive judgment – probably the most significant judgment that any Prime Minister has made, certainly in peacetime, based on incomplete information, and at a great pace.”

He said he instructed the Department of Health and the NHS to “plan on the basis of a reasonable worst-case scenario” in January 2020, signed off at Cobra on January 31, for 820,000 deaths.

Greg Clark questioned the health secretary. Picture: Parliamentlive.tv
Greg Clark questioned the health secretary. Picture: Parliamentlive.tv

He said he was “determined that that would not happen on my watch” and “so throughout February, we were planning for how to stop that, and how to deal with the consequences if it came true”.

He said that by March 3 there had been no deaths and just 50 confirmed cases, but by the week beginning March 9 the “data started to follow the reasonable worst-case scenario”, and by the end of the week the projected numbers “were on a scale that was unconscionable”.

Asked why he and others had not seen the enormity of what was coming, Mr Hancock said: “The clear scientific advice at the time was that there was a need to have these tools like lockdown at your disposal but also that the consequences and the costs of lockdown start immediately and, critically, the clear advice at the time was that there’s only a limited period that people would put up with it, would put up with lockdown.

“Now that proved actually to be wrong.”

He said “challenging the scientific advice is one thing, but overruling a scientific consensus is much harder, especially when the costs of the lockdown are immediate and are obvious.”

At the start of the pandemic China's "lack of transparency" hindered the government response, Mr Hancock said.

He added: "It is absolutely vital for the world that China is more transparent about its health information as soon as it understands that there are problems in future."

Later, he added: “I know, I know deep in here, that what I did and what my team did, was what we believed to be the best thing we could on the information that we had to protect lives and to get us out of this pandemic.

“And we worked every day from the moment we woke up, to the moment that we fell into our beds, on that mission for months and months and months, and I know that I can face the mirror each morning.”

Mr Hancock said he first heard evidence from China that there was asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus in January 2020 but was told by the World Health Organisation that it was “likely a mistranslation”.

He said he “bitterly” regrets not overruling advice that there was no asymptomatic transmission, later adding that the UK will probably face another pathogen “like this in less than 100 years”.

He also faced questions on his claim that those going into residential care homes would be tested for the virus before being permitted to do so.

Mr Hancock has said that while he committed to testing patients discharged from hospitals it “took time” to build the testing capacity and it “wasn’t possible” to test everyone.

He said: “We set out a policy that people would be tested when tests were available and then I set about building the testing capacity to be able to deliver on that.”

Early advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was not to test asymptomatic people as it could result in unhelpful false positives.

He added: "Even though the formal advice I was receiving was asymptomatic transmission was unlikely and we shouldn't base policy on that - I should have overruled that."

No testing system was in place when the pandemic began, he said, adding: "It's harder to build a plane in flight than before you take off."

In regard to why people weren't paid their salary from the start if they were required to self isolate Mr Hancock says the system could have been "gamed" with people essentially nominating their entire friendship group.

A £500 payment was brought in in September. When asked if this should have been done sooner he said: "It's fair to say we're glad we've made the change now."

Patients being discharged into care homes without testing is a key point of questioning Picture: Lighthaunter
Patients being discharged into care homes without testing is a key point of questioning Picture: Lighthaunter

Mr Clark said the inquiry has "established pretty clearly" that the UK was too late to lock down and there was inadequate testing capacity.

He asked if discharging hospital patients into care homes was another failing.

"Each and every death in a care home weighs heavily on me, and always will,” Mr Hancock said, adding he increased funding, provided PPE and helped set up staff testing but that his powers over the social care sector were "extremely limited".

He didn't have all the data and councils were mainly in charge, he said.

He "can't remember" the Prime Minister questioning the situation with care homes when he was discharged from hospital after battling coronavirus.

Boris Johnson is said to have questioned Matt Hancock over the care home situation after he was discharged from hospital
Boris Johnson is said to have questioned Matt Hancock over the care home situation after he was discharged from hospital

But he said recent research shows only 1.6% of outbreaks at homes came from hospital and the majority came from staff.

However, a lack of testing may mean these figures are unreliable, as Mr Clark pointed out.

Mr Hancock also stresses the since-changed advice from SAGE was to not carry out asymptomatic testing, which resulted in some patients not being tested before being sent back to care homes.

At a different point in the pandemic some hospitals told care homes that residents would not be admitted while do not resuscitate orders were granted without consent.

Mr Hancock said both were inexcusable and as soon as he found out he made efforts to put a stop to the practises, using "every power at his disposal" to stop the "inappropriate use of DNRs".

A split in opinion early on and lack of PPE led to the initial decision to not advise the public to wear face masks, he said.

But that lack of PPE, he said, was not an issue for health care workers.

A National Audit Office report said there was no such shortage for frontline staff even though pictures surfaced showing nurses wearing bin bags – Mr Hancock did concede there were issues in some areas.

Regarding contracts for PPE he said he acted properly by passing on details of those who contacted him. This line of questioning followed several reports that people with links to the government were unfairly favoured when it came to distributing contracts.

Read more: How Hancock tried to rebut Cummings' claims

He said he has seen no evidence to suggest any medics died due to a failure to provide them with PPE during the coronavirus pandemic.

He acknowledged there were “individual challenges”, but he suggested they were issues with distribution and not supply.

Questioned about the higher death rate among frontline medics, Mr Hancock said: “We’ve looked into this and there is no evidence that I have seen that a shortage of PPE provision led to anyone dying of Covid. That’s from the evidence I have seen.”

He accepted “distribution was a challenge to all areas” and that a supply shortage was “pretty close sometimes”.

Pressed about nurses having to use bin bags instead of PPE, he said: “I have acknowledged throughout there were individual challenges at getting hold of PPE but at a national level there was never a point where we ran out.”

When asked about hospital transmission he said testing capacity at first was not at the level required for effective testing and some hospital's ventilation systems were not adequate.

Worst case scenario predictions estimated more than 800,000 deaths Picture: iStock/Bill Oxford
Worst case scenario predictions estimated more than 800,000 deaths Picture: iStock/Bill Oxford

His comments have drawn criticism,with Labour’s shadow mental health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who is a frontline medic, accusing Mr Hancock of “trying to rewrite history”.

She said: “It’s insulting to all the frontline staff who didn’t have the right masks or who were given inferior gowns. They were put at unnecessary risk.”

Rachel Harrison, national officer at the GMB union, said: “Matt Hancock either has no idea what happened under his watch during the pandemic or he is lying through his teeth.

“Our NHS members have been let down by the Government throughout the crisis and lack of proper PPE is probably their number one complaint.

“Many were left terrified for their lives treating Covid-positive patients with either inadequate or non-existent PPE.”

Looking forward, Mr Hancock said the variant first observed in India, now codenamed Delta, now equates for 91% of new cases but would not be drawn on questions as to whether June 21's Freedom Day was at risk.

'What I did and what my team did, was what we believed to be the best thing we could on the information that we had to protect lives and to get us out of this pandemic...'

After a four-and-a-half hour session Mr Hancock was asked about the plan for a vaccine-resistant variant (known as vaccine escape).

He said while there is no published plan the government has "a play book".

Boris Johnson, he said, wants a vaccine against such a variant ready in 100 days and while "we are not there yet" the process and any approval is being worked on.

But, he said, vaccine escape is a gradual process and the sudden emergence of a completely vaccine-resistant variant would equate to a new pandemic, which the government would be "much better prepared" to deal with.

Analysis from political editor Paul Francis

It was not quite as explosive or incendiary as the bombshells dropped by Dominic Cummings.

But health secretary Matt Hancock nevertheless gave a compelling insight into what happened behind the scenes as the government sought ways to defeat the coronavirus.

The committee, jointly chaired by Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark and the former secretary of state for health Jeremy Hunt, managed to elicit some intriguing nuggets from Matt Hancock over four-and-a half-hours of evidence.

The one figure that leapt out was the number of potential fatalities from the virus, modelled on a worst case scenario. Scientists reported back to Mr Hancock to say that it could be as high as 826,000.

The Health Secretary, adopting a suitably sombre tone, told the committee of MPs that had no action been taken it was entirely possible that figure could have proved accurate.

As to the question of whether the government had really thrown a protective shield around the elderly and whether the government had done enough to stop the transmission of the virus into residential homes, he was less persuasive.

He suggested the commitment had been dependent on there being sufficient testing equipment available, a verbal qualification that several MPs seem to have doubts about.

Mr Clark seemed rather underwhelmed by the account. You suspect that it is an issue that will be in the full glare of the spotlight when the full public inquiry gets underway.

Mr Hancock also seemed slightly shaky about how much he had shared with the Prime Minister about the instruction to hospitals to discharge as many patients as they could to residential homes.

Asked about how much of this had been communicated to the PM after his own spell in hospital, he replied that he could not recall if he had actually told him anything.

As to the criticism heaped on him by Cummings, he was able to to shrug it off by pointing out he had not provided the committee with any evidence to back up his claims.

All in all, the Health Secretary probably did as much as he could to stave off calls for him to quit.

Whether the forensic nature of a full public inquiry will see his account unravel remains to be seen.

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