Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock has defended the practice of discharging patients to care homes without testing for Covid-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic, as well as numerous allegations made by Dominic Cummings, saying it was “telling” the former aide had not provided evidence.
Giving evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, Mr Hancock was also asked to justify the government’s decision to stop community testing in the early weeks of the pandemic, but denied there were national shortages of PPE and said testing capacity was always being increased.
Despite verbal assurances, Mr Cummings did not provide written evidence for a number of serious allegations against Mr Hancock and others, including the prime minister, according to the committee’s co-chair Greg Clark, who said the allegations should be “counted as unproven without it”.
Mr Hancock said it was “telling that no evidence has been provided” about some of the claims Mr Cummings made. “I can be quite forceful when I’m trying to get something through if it needs to happen,” he said. “But that’s what you have to do, and crucially, you have to bring the team with you.”
Mr Hancock said he had “no idea” why Mr Cummings held such a negative view of him, but said he knew the aide had wanted the prime minister to fire him, adding “he briefed the newspapers at the time”. He said he had “of course” raised objections about this and that he had had “the prime minister’s wholesome support all the way through”.
“The best thing to say is that government has operated much better over the last six months,” he said, a reference to Mr Cummings’s departure in November.
Opening the session, Mr Hancock denied ever misleading the prime minister and repeated his insistence that all patients had received the Covid treatment they had needed, despite Mr Cummings’s claim that the chief scientific adviser had told Mr Hancock that was not true.
Mr Hancock said getting hold of PPE was a huge challenge but said there was “never a national shortage of PPE” and the government had worked to remove bureaucracy that put a limit on the price of PPE, so it could pay “at the top of the market” for protective equipment.
He also denied claims he had assured Boris Johnson that all patients would be tested before they returned to care homes. “My job was to build that testing capacity and with the team we absolutely did,” he said.
He admitted that community testing had ended early in the pandemic because there had not been sufficient testing capacity and there were concerns over false negatives. “Testing was at no point scaled down, on the contrary, we were driving up testing capacity all the way through,” he said.
However, he said he was not advised in the run-up to the first lockdown whether expanding community testing was an option and said Britain’s capacity was very low. “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.”
Mr Hancock said that while the prime minister was “absolutely, four-square behind me” on the idea of setting a target of 100,000 tests a day, he did not realise at the time that Mr Cummings was “not as supportive as I might have hoped”, only learning this in Mr Cummings’s testimony. He said: “I was a bit surprised by the testimony that he didn’t think we should have a target.”
Questioned by the Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey, Mr Hancock said he would happily pass the committees copies of clinical advice on testing from health officials to him in the key period of January to April last year, and his responses.
He also further clarified what his promise was on testing people who were leaving hospitals for care homes. Rather than having said that this would happen immediately, as Mr Cummings had claimed, the only pledge was “that we would introduce this testing when we had the capacity to do that”. – Guardian