Matt Hancock today admitted the first lockdown was delayed despite initial warnings over 820,000 deaths amid fears Britons would not tolerate the restrictions for long.
In a dramatic evidence session with MPs, the Health Secretary said that as early as January he was presented with a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ of the huge potential toll, based on Spanish Flu.
But imposing the draconian first national restrictions did not happen until March 23, with Mr Hancock pointing to expert advice that the public would only ‘put up with it’ for a limited time and concerns about the ‘immediate costs’.
He said of the anxiety over people obeying the tough rules: ‘That proved to be wrong.’
But he said it was ‘hard’ to go against scientific advice, arguing that the PM was having to make one of the most difficult decisions in peacetime on the basis of ‘incomplete information and at great pace’.
Mr Hancock also gave a damning assessment of the expert views on asymptomatic transmission, saying the WHO told him at the end of January that claims coming out of China were ‘likely a mistranslation’.
Addressing the barrage of claims about his conduct from Dominic Cummings, Mr Hancock denied claims that he ‘lied’ to fellow ministers and the public about the coronavirus response.
He replied bluntly ‘No’ when he was asked by science committee chair Greg Clark whether he had misled Boris Johnson about people being tested before returning from hospitals to care homes.
He said he had ‘no idea’ over why Mr Cummings was targeting him specifically over the problems. But he admitted that he knew the PM’s top aide had wanted him sacked because there was ‘briefing to the newspapers’.
Mr Clark kicked off the session by confirming that Mr Cummings has yet to provide promised evidence backing up the barrage of allegations he made about Mr Hancock last month.
The former No10 chief also branded Mr Hancock ‘disastrously incompetent’ and said he should have been sacked on multiple occasions.
But Mr Clark said that Mr Cummings had missed deadlines to back up his claims, and they must be viewed as ‘unproven’. Mr Hancock said the lack of evidence was ‘telling’.
In an intense and at times emotional appearance before MPs:
- Mr Hancock insisted he wished he had ‘stuck to my guns’ when the WHO and scientists dismissed suggestions Covid could transmit asymptomatically;
- He swiped that government has ‘operated better in the past six months’ since Mr Cummings was ousted from Downing Street;
- He claimed he had been pushing for a stronger response to the pandemic before dire updated forecasts from scientists in March forced a shift in the government’s approach.
- The Health Secretary defended his handling of the care home situation saying news reports from Spain of stricken residents was ‘burned across my soul’;
- He said SAGE had been wrong to argue that the Test & Trace system was having no significant impact on transmission.
Matt Hancock replied bluntly ‘No’ when he was asked by science committee chair Greg Clark whether he had misled colleagues about people being tested before returning to care homes.
Matt Hancock will field hours of questions from a cross-party committee as he confronts the barrage of allegations from maverick former No10 chief Dominic Cummings (pictured)
Mr Hancock ignored questions from journalists as he left his London home this morning. He has already denied the allegations, saying he only committed to building capacity for testing at the start of the crisis in March last year
Matt Hancock’s ‘lies’ according to Cummings
Dominic Cummings claimed in his bombshell committee evidence that there were ‘numerous’ examples of Matt Hancock lying during the pandemic.
He gave four main examples – all of which Mr Hancock has made clear he rejects.
‘Lie’ 1: Hospital patients were being tested for Covid before they went back to care homes
On care homes, Mr Cummings told MPs Government talk of putting a shield around care homes was ‘complete nonsense’.
‘We were told categorically in March (by Mr Hancock) that people would be tested before they went back to homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened.
‘Now while the Government rhetoric was we have put a shield around care homes and blah blah blah, it was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.’
‘Lie’ 2: Patients were getting treatment they needed in first peak
Mr Cummings alleged Mr Hancock lied about everybody getting the treatment they deserved in the first peak when ‘many people were left to die in horrific circumstances’.
Asked to provide evidence of the Health Secretary’s lying, the former chief aide to the Prime Minister told the Commons committee: ‘There are numerous examples. I mean in the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required.
‘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.’
‘Lie’ 3: Pandemic plans were up to scratch
Mr Cummings said that assurances given to him by Mr Hancock in January last year that pandemic preparations were brilliant ‘were basically completely hollow’.
The former chief aide to the Prime Minister told the Commons committee he received a response from Health Secretary Matt Hancock assuring: ‘We’ve got full plans up to and including pandemic levels regularly prepared and refreshed, CMOs and epidemiologists, we’re stress testing now, it’s our top tier risk register, we have an SR bid before this.’
Mr Cummings told the committee: ‘I would like to stress and apologise for the fact that it is true that I did this but I did not follow up on this and push it the way I should’ve done.
‘We were told in No 10 at the time that this is literally top of the risk register, this has been planned and there’s been exercises on this over and over again, everyone knows what to do.
‘And it’s sort of tragic in a way, that someone who wrote so often about running red teams and not trusting things and not digging into things, whilst I was running red teams about lots of other things in government at this time, I didn’t do it on this.
‘If I had said at the end of January, we’re going to take a Saturday and I want all of these documents put on the table and I want it all gone through and I want outside experts to look at it all, then we’d have figured out much, much earlier that all the claims about brilliant preparations and how everything was in order were basically completely hollow, but we didn’t figure this out until the back end of February.’
‘Lie’ 4: PPE supplies were hampered by NHS and Treasury
Mr Cummings made an allegation that Mr Hancock squirmed over shortages of PPE during the pandemic.
He claimed that in mid-April, just before he and the PM were diagnosed with having Covid, Mr Hancock gave assurances that ‘everything is fine with PPE, we’ve got it all covered, etc, etc’.
However, when Mr Cummings returned to work he discovered there was a ‘disaster over PPE and how we were actually completely short, hospitals all over the country were running out’.
‘The Secretary of State said in that meeting this is the fault of Simon Stevens, this is the fault of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it’s not my fault, they’ve blocked approvals on all sorts of things. I said to the cabinet secretary, please investigate this and find out if it’s true,’ Mr Cummings claimed.
‘The Cabinet Secretary came back to me and said it’s completely untrue, I’ve lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings. The Cabinet Secretary said that to me and the Cabinet Secretary said that to the Prime Minister.’
… And the alleged hampering of test & trace to hit ‘incredibly stupid’ daily testing target
Mr Cummings took aim at Mr Hancock over his introduction of a target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day last summer.
‘This was an incredibly stupid thing to do because we already had that goal internally,’ Mr Cummings said.
‘What then happened when I came back around the 13th was I started getting calls and No 10 were getting calls saying Hancock is interfering with the building of the test and trace system because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month.
‘We had half the Government with me in No 10 calling around frantically saying do not do what Hancock says, build the thing properly for the medium term.
‘And we had Hancock calling them all saying down tools on this, do this, hold tests back so I can hit my target.’
Mr Cummings claimed that Mr Hancock should have been ‘fired for that thing alone’.
‘The whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’,’ the former aide said.
‘It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.
Mr Clark put it to Mr Hancock that the maths of the potential scale of deaths from coronavirus were ‘stark’ early on.
‘Did you not see that for all of the complex models, that actually the mathematics of this pandemic, were pretty stark?’ he said.
‘That you have 60million people in the adult population, if two thirds of them contracted Covid, and 1 per cent of those who contracted it died, we’d have 400,000 deaths, and that is unacceptable and liable to overwhelm the NHS.’
Asked how this was missed for so long, Mr Hancock responded: ‘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 in certainly peacetime, based on incomplete information, and at great pace.’
The Health Secretary said he asked for a planning assessment for the pandemic that was signed off by SAGE at the end of January, and suggested that based on the example of Spanish Flu 820,000 people could die.
‘I was determined that would not happen on my watch,’ he said.
But Mr Hancock admitted that the stance within government on lockdown did not start to shift until March 9 when the SP-IM subgroup of SAGE presented new estimates that looked in line with the reasonable worst case scenario.
He said that he then spoke to an ‘ashen faced’ senior No10 official who suggested action would have to be stepped up.
Mr Hancock said he told them: ‘I am glad the projections are now showing what I think is happening.’
Mr Hancock said there were concerns about the ‘immediate costs’ of lockdown – but also that the public would quickly start to flout the rules.
‘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.
Mr Hancock insisted he scrutinised the advice.
‘We absolutely debated and challenged that advice but when you’re faced with a decision of this enormity, and ultimately of course as Health Secretary my primary goal is protecting lives, finding a way out of this, and protecting the NHS, I made that argument,’ he said.
‘But ultimately we didn’t know how long people would put up with it and now it seems obvious that people will put up with lockdowns – it was not at all obvious.
‘These are huge decisions, to take those decisions against the scientific advice is an even bigger decision to take. Now when the scientific advice moved that became easier.’
Among the grenades lobbed by Mr Cummings at his own hearing last month was that Mr Johnson had been furious to discover that people were discharged from hospitals to care homes without coronavirus tests.
Mr Hancock has previously insisted he only committed to building capacity for testing at the start of the crisis in March last year.
There has been speculation that Mr Cummings might be waiting until the hearing to drop his evidence for maximum effect.
The row was fuelled this morning as several of the UK’s biggest care home operators said they repeatedly warned the Department of Health about the risks of not testing people going back to care homes at the time.
Asked whether he knew why Mr Cummings disliked him, Mr Hancock said: ‘I have no idea.’
He said he worked ‘directly with the PM from the start of this’.
Pressed as to whether he had been aware the ex-aide wanted him fired, Mr Hancock said: ‘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, the best thing to say, is that Government has operated better in the past six months.’
Challenged on Mr Cummings bombshell allegations about the bungling of care home testing, Mr Hancock stressed he followed the clinical advice.
‘We set out a policy that people would be tested when tests were available. Then I set about building the testing capacity for us to be able to deliver on that,’ he said.
‘The challenge was not just that we didn’t have the testing capacity but also that the clinical advice was that a test on somebody 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.
‘At the same time, the clinicians were worried that, because it took four days to turn a test around, that if they leave somebody in hospital for those four days they might catch Covid and therefore go back to a care home with a negative result but having caught it.’
Mr Hancock also insisted he never said PPE shortages were the fault of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak or NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens, and did not accuse them of blocking approvals – as Mr Cummings claimed.
‘That is not a fair recollection of the situation,’ he said.
‘Getting hold of PPE was always a huge challenge, and as the National Audit Office have shown in their reports into this when they went through all of the details, there was never a point to which NHS providers couldn’t get access to PPE, but there were huge challenges.’
He explained that in March China introduced new export restrictions and a ‘piece of bureaucracy’ that put a limit on the price that could be paid for PPE that needed to be removed.
Mr Hancock said: ‘And we took a policy decision that we should pay at the top of the market – that did require the Treasury to make that change, the Chancellor was incredibly helpful in driving that through, and 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.’
He added that his whole approach to the pandemic has been that ‘this is a team effort’ and you ‘can’t respond to a pandemic, just by pointing fingers’.
Mr Hancock batted away jibes that his target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day was a PR exercise and distracted government resources.
He said he was ‘surprised’ by those accusations from Mr Cummings. ‘The PM was absolutely four square behind me,’ he said.
Mr Hancock also pointed to clinical advice as he defended the lack of community testing early in the crisis.
He said the screening was abandoned because there was not enough capacity – but also due to experts advising that it was ineffective when people did not have symptoms.
It has since emerged that a significant proportion of Covid cases are asymptomatic.
‘Testing was at no point scaled down, on the contrary, we were driving up testing capacity all the way through,’ he said.
But he accepted community testing ceased early in the pandemic and said he was not advised in the run-up to the first lockdown whether expanding community testing was an option.
‘Unlike other countries we did not go into this with a testing capacity. So one of the reasons we had to reduce the use of community testing is because we didn’t have a big enough capacity and we had to target the testing at where it’s clinically most needed,’ Mr Hancock said.
‘The second point, which is really important here, is that the clinical advice I received is that testing people asymptomatically would lead to false negatives.’
According to the Guardian, Care England raised concerns over ‘lack of testing in hospitals and in the care sector’ with the Department of Health and Social Care ‘several times’.
The Care Providers Alliance are also said to have told the Government to ‘prioritise testing for care residents’ in March 2020 and emailed Mr Hancock directly to warn anyone discharged from hospital to social care settings ‘MUST be tested before discharge’.
Mr Hancock has since denied promising hospital to care home testing and told the Commons last month that it was not possible to test everyone leaving hospital for social care at the start of the pandemic because the capacity was not available.
He added ‘his recollection’ was committing to delivering testing for people going from hospital into care homes ‘when we could do it’.
Opening the hearing, Mr Clark said a deadline of last Friday had been set for Mr Cummings to supply evidence for his allegations about Mr Hancock.
But he said: ‘We have not received that evidence nor any explanation as to why that has not been available.
‘It’s important that if serious allegations are made against an individual, they should be corroborated with evidence and it must be counted as unproven without it.’
Launching a dramatic bid to bring down the PM and the Health Secretary last month, Mr Cummings blamed a toxic mix of complacency and indecision for the needless deaths.
He told MPs that senior ministers and advisers, including himself, had fallen ‘disastrously short’, adding: ‘When the public needed us most, the Government failed. Tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die.’
Mr Cummings claimed the Prime Minister was ‘unfit for the job’ and could not lead Britain out of the pandemic.
He said the Health Secretary ‘should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things, including lying’.
He alleged Mr Hancock had lied to the PM over the disastrous policy of not testing older people for Covid before they were discharged from hospital into care homes.
The former No10 aide outlined a series of failings by him and the ‘smoking ruin’ Department for Health, including lying in January last year that pandemic preparations were brilliant when they were ‘completely hollow’.
Mr Cummings alleged Mr Hancock lied about testing hospital patients for coronavirus before they were sent back into care homes, in a suggestion that thousands died because of his dishonesty.
He also claimed that the Health Secretary lied about people getting the treatment they needed during the first peak last March and April – adding that ‘many people were left to die in horrific circumstances’.
Mr Cummings then accused Mr Hancock of ‘appalling’ behaviour towards chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, saying: ‘He used the whole ‘we’re following the science’ as a way so that he could always say, ‘well if things go wrong, we’ll blame the scientists and it’s not my fault’.’
Downing Street did not deny that Mr Johnson considered sacking the Health Secretary in April last year but insisted the Prime Minister has confidence in him now, as Mr Hancock disputed the allegations.
He suggested that Mr Johnson chose not to fire the Health Secretary at that point because he was allegedly told ‘you should keep him there because he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along’.
Mr Cummings told a joint committee: ‘One thing I can say completely honestly is that I said repeatedly from February/March that if we don’t fire the Secretary of State and get testing into somebody else’s hands, we’re going to kill people and it’s going to be a catastrophe.’
On the claim that Mr Hancock lied, Mr Cummings said: ‘There are numerous examples. In the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment they required.
‘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. We were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.’
Mr Hancock had also blamed NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens and Chancellor Rishi Sunak for PPE problems.
Mr Cummings said he asked the cabinet secretary to investigate, who came back and said ‘it is completely untrue, I have lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings’.
The former aide said Mr Hancock’s public promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April was ‘incredibly stupid’ because it was already an internal goal.
‘In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’.
‘It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.’
There have been reports that Mr Cummings has documents showing the PM’s office summoned Mr Hancock to No10 on May 3 last year, for a meeting the following day, to explain misleading him, the PM and then Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill on the testing of patients before discharge into care homes, as well as about further testing of residents and staff.
The DoH said it ‘did not recognise’ the claim and Mr Hancock ‘had many meetings with the PM across a range of issues’.
Mr Hancock has previously said on care home testing: ‘We worked as hard as we could to protect people who live in care homes, and of course those who live in care homes are some of the most vulnerable to this disease because by its nature it attacks and has more of an impact on older people.
‘Now when it comes to the testing of people as they left hospital and went into care homes, we committed to building the testing capacity to allow that to happen.
‘Of course it then takes time to build testing capacity.
‘In fact, one of the critical things we did was set the 100,000 target back then to make sure we built that testing capacity and it was very effective in doing so.
‘And then we were able to introduce the policy of testing everybody before going into care homes, but we could only do that once we had the testing capacity which I had to build, because we didn’t have it in this country from the start.
‘We started with a capacity of less than 2,000 in March last year and got to 100,000 tests a day.
‘And we set all of this out at the time in public documents. It’s all a matter of public record.’
Mr Johnson has said the government faced an ‘incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we have taken lightly’ and ‘at every stage we have been governed by a determination to protect life’.
Mr Cummings has been posting his records from the early stages of the coronavirus crisis on his Twitter feed