Matt Hancock has hit back at Dominic Cummings over claims he lied and failed the public as “unsubstantiated allegations” and “not true”.
The health secretary has been left fighting to save his career after Boris Johnson’s ex-adviser accused him of repeatedly lying, being disastrously incompetent and claimed he should have been fired on multiple occasions over his response to the Covid pandemic.
Forced to go to the Commons to respond to the claims, Hancock said: “These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.
“I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout.”
During a seven-hour evidence session to MPs on Wednesday, Cummings claimed his former boss, the prime minister, is “unfit” to lead and his government’s failures had led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Apart from his damning assessment of Johnson, Cummings saved his fiercest criticism for Hancock over failings around care homes policy, personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement and his public pledge on a testing target which caused disruption in Whitehall.
Cummings told MPs that the prime minister had been told “categorically in March that people will be tested before they went back to care homes” from hospital by Hancock – something which did not happen.
It was “complete nonsense” to claim the government had put a shield around care homes, Cummings claimed.
He said Hancock should have been sacked on 15 to 20 occasions and Whitehall’s top mandarin at the time, Mark Sedwill, had “lost confidence in the secretary of state’s honesty”.
Hancock said: “Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked ‘What must I do to protect life?’
“That is the job of the health secretary in a pandemic.
“We’ve taken an approach of openness, transparency and explanation of both what we know and of what we don’t know.”
Cummings accused the health secretary of making a “stupid” public pledge to increase testing to 100,000 by the end of April 2020, claiming he then interfered with the building of the Test and Trace system to maximise his chances of hitting his target.
“It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm,” Cummings claimed.
But in the Commons, Hancock defended his approach and said: “Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in government.”
Aaron Chown – PA Images via Getty Images
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the allegations made by Cummings are either true – in which case Hancock “potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code” and the principles of standards in public life – or they are false “and the prime minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street”.
Health select committee chairman Jeremy Hunt, one of those who questioned Cummings, said they had asked for evidence to be provided to back up the former adviser’s claims and until that is produced “those allegation should be treated as unproven”.
Hancock’s cabinet colleague, Robert Jenrick, rejected Cummings’ central claim that tens of thousands of people died unnecessarily because of the government’s handling of the crisis.
Asked directly whether he thinks that claim is wrong, the communities secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Yes, I think it is, because you have to remember that we didn’t have all of the facts at the time that the decisions were being taken.
“Nobody, I think, could doubt for one moment that the prime minister was doing anything other than acting with the best of motives with the information and the advice that was available to him.”
Downing Street said on Wednesday that Hancock continues to have the confidence of the prime minister and the pair are “working closely” to save lives.
Johnson, meanwhile, is likely to face questions of his own about the explosive evidence from his once-closest aide when he visits a hospital on Thursday.
As well as being branded unfit for office, it is alleged that Johnson dismissed the pandemic as a “scare story” or the new “swine flu” in early 2020 as the global crisis loomed, and wanted to be injected with Covid-19 on television in a bid to calm the nation.