Covid: Matt Hancock defends actions on care home testing after accusations from Dominic Cummings

It took time to build the testing capacity for everyone being brought from hospital to care home, Matt Hancock says

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has defended his actions over accusations he allowed Covid to run rife through care homes by failing to test coronavirus-positive hospital patients at the start of the pandemic.

In response to repeated questions from journalists at a press conference on Thursday, Mr Hancock did not admit to a key criticism raised by Dominic Cummings that he misled the country, instead insisting he was ''committed to delivering that testing of people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it."

Mr Cummings had criticised Mr Hancock saying he had told senior officials, including the prime minister, people would be tested before they returned to care homes but had failed to deliver on the pledge.

Dominic Cummings has evidence that Matt Hancock was summoned to Downing Street to explain the issue of care home testing, ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston explains

Mr Cummings said: "Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes."

Mr Hancock offered a different explanation of events, pointing to the time it took to build testing capacity at the start of the pandemic.

He said: "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.

Rewatch Matt Hancock's Covid briefing after Dominic Cummings' explosive claims:

"Of course, it then takes time to build testing capacity.

"In fact, one of the critical things we did was set the 100,000 [tests a day] target back then to make sure we built that testing capacity and it was very effective.

"Then we were able to introduce the policy of testing everybody before going into care homes."

Want more analysis of Cummings' evidence? Listen to Calling Peston

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Hancock told MPs the “unsubstantiated allegations” from Dominic Cummings were "not true” as he failed to deny people were discharged into care homes without being tested.

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth, asking the urgent question, earlier highlighted the “grave and serious” allegations from Mr Cummings.

Mr Ashworth said: “These allegations from Cummings are either true, and if so the Secretary of State potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code and the Nolan principles, or they are false and the Prime Minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street. Which is it?"

Mr Hancock denied the accusations, telling the Commons: “These allegations that were put yesterday – and repeated by (Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth) – are serious allegations and I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.

“I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout.”

Dominic Cummings has weighed in to public debate frequently since leaving Downing Street Credit: House of Commons

During a seven-hour evidence session to MPs on Wednesday, Mr 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 Mr Johnson, Mr Cummings saved his fiercest criticism for Mr 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.

One of Mr Cummings' central claims was that Mr Hancock had allowed residents to be discharged to their care home without being tested while insisting there was testing in place.

During Thursday's urgent question, Labour MP Barbara Keeley asked whether Mr Hancock knew people were being discharged into care homes without being tested.

The health secretary did not deny the accusation, but said the government had needed to build testing capacity at the time.

Matt Hancock responds to Dominic Cummings' scathing attack of him

“The challenge is we had to build testing capacity, and at that time of course I was focused on protecting people in care homes and in building that testing capacity so that we had the daily tests to be able to ensure that availability was more widespread," he replied.

Mr Hancock admitted that mistakes were made, but claimed the government had learnt from them.

“It’s another example of constantly learning about the virus. As we learnt the impact of asymptomatic transmission in particular, so we changed the protocols in care homes," he said.

He did not take the opportunity to apologise to the families of those who died in care homes when asked to by Liberal Democrat Munira Wilson.

Following the session, Mr Ashworth wrote to Mr Hancock saying it was "extremely disrespectful to those who have died and their loved ones, for you not to have addressed such pressing questions in the Chamber when you first had the opportunity to do so.”

Mr 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,” Mr Cummings claimed.

But in the Commons, Mr Hancock defended his approach and said: “Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in government.”

Mr Hancock said on Wednesday night he had not seen Mr Cummings’ seven-hour evidence to MPs as he was “saving lives” by dealing with the vaccination rollout.

Conservative chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee Jeremy Hunt said that, until such evidence is provided, Mr Cummings’ “allegations should be treated as unproven”.

The former de facto Downing Street chief of staff, who apologised for his own shortcomings, also claimed “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die” because of the government’s failings.

He argued the first lockdown was too late and that a circuit breaker lockdown in autumn last year would have controlled the number of cases in the UK.

Mathematical biologist Kit Yates said locking down a week earlier at the start of the pandemic could've saved as many as 30,000 lives

Dr Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath agreed. He told ITV News: "I think it's entirely uncontroversial to say we could've saved tens of thousands of lives by locking down just a single week earlier."

He explained that before the first lockdown, cases were double roughly every 3.5 days, and quadrupling in a week. So locking down a week earlier means the UK would've had a quarter of the cases and deaths it had.

He said: "So given that we saw maybe 40,000 deaths in the first wave of the pandemic, that suggests we could've saved a quarter of those lives, so maybe upwards of 30,000 people."

He also suggested a circuit breaker lockdowns late last year would have helped: "I don't think anyone would argue that a two-week circuit breaker would've solved all of our problems. We would've had to have done repeated lockdowns.

"But the idea that we waited, we let cases grow, we ended up having this variant which was more transmissible, and then we ended up going into a month-long lockdown in New Year.

"If we had staggered that lockdown more sensibly in phases then we could've kept cases lower and saved more lives."

'I'm just off to drive forward the vaccine programme': Matt Hancock walks by reporters without answering questions on Thursday morning

As he arrived at his north London home on Wednesday evening, Mr Hancock said: “I haven’t seen this performance today in full, and instead I’ve been dealing with getting the vaccination rollout going, especially to over-30s, and saving lives.

“I’ll be giving a statement to the House of Commons tomorrow and I’ll have more to say then.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know - Listen in for the latest information, advice and analysis on the pandemic

A spokesman for Mr Hancock said “we absolutely reject” the criticisms made by Mr Cummings.

Meanwhile, speaking for the first time since Dominic Cummings gave evidence to MPs on Wednesday, Mr Johnson told reporters on a visit to a hospital in Essex that lockdowns were a “very, very painful and traumatic thing” that had to be “set against the horror of the pandemic” and that he had followed the scientific data.

As well as being branded unfit for office, it was alleged Mr 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.

Mr Cummings accused Mr Hancock of performing “disastrously” below the standards expected and that the cabinet secretary – the country’s top civil servant – recommended the Health Secretary should be sacked.

The Vote Leave strategist said he too recommended, sometimes on a daily basis, that Mr Johnson sack the Health Secretary but the Conservative Party leader was warned off the idea because “he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along”.

“I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly,” Mr Cummings told MPs.

Downing Street said on Wednesday Mr Hancock continued to have the confidence of the Prime Minister and the pair were “working closely” to save lives.

The riposte is unlikely to prevent the government from facing an onslaught of queries about Mr Cummings’ evidence.

In a series of claims, Mr Cummings said:

  • It was suggested chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty should inject Mr Johnson with the virus on live TV to show it was nothing to be scared of.

  • Herd immunity from people catching the disease was thought to be inevitable because there was no plan to try to suppress the spread of the virus.

  • Then cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill told the Prime Minister to go on TV and explain the herd immunity plan by saying “it’s like the old chicken pox parties, we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September”.

  • The Prime Minister rejected scientific advice for a lockdown in September, instead opting to “hit and hope”.

The Prime Minister was criticised as ‘unfit’ for the job by his former aide Dominic Cummings Credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

Mr Cummings, who was ousted from No 10 late last year as part of a behind-the-scenes power struggle, said that, by the end of October 2020, his relationship with Mr Johnson had deteriorated due to the Prime Minister’s delays to ordering an autumn lockdown that could have prevented deaths.

He said that he “fundamentally regarded him as unfit for the job” and that he was attempting to make changes to the “structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions”.

Offering his version of events of the outset of the pandemic in Britain, Mr Cummings described his mounting panic about the situation in March 2020.

The 49-year-old said there was no plan in place for a lockdown or measures to protect the most vulnerable and quoted deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara who, he claimed, told him she thought the country was “absolutely f*****” and that “we’re going to kill thousands of people”.

Dominic Cummings unleashed a fierce attack on the government on Wednesday.

The first lockdown was finally implemented on March 23, but Mr Cummings said the Prime Minister later regretted the move.

Similar mistakes were made in September as Mr Johnson was urged by Government scientists to impose a second lockdown but he resisted because of economic concerns.

Asked if he had heard Mr Johnson say he would rather see “bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown on the nation, Mr Cummings said: “I heard that in the Prime Minister’s study,” describing BBC reporting of the incident as “accurate”.

Mr Johnson told the Commons, while Mr Cummings was only half-way through his evidence, that dealing with the pandemic had been “appallingly difficult” but that his administration had “at every stage tried to minimise loss of life”.