Boris Johnson has vowed to keep Matt Hancock as health secretary despite the release of messages apparently showing that he branded him “totally f****** hopeless” at the height of the first wave of coronavirus last spring.
The brutal putdown was included in screenshots of WhatsApp exchanges published by former No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings as he fought back against government attempts to undermine his account of disarray in Downing Street and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) as Covid-19 swept across the UK.
Mr Cummings accused the PM and Mr Hancock of trying to “rewrite history” to cover up their initial “herd immunity” strategy and their failings on the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), the protection of care homes and the introduction of testing in the spring of 2020.
And he accused Mr Johnson of delaying a public inquiry into the government’s performance for long enough to ensure its potentially damning findings are released after his private target date to resign as PM in 2025 or 2026.
Downing Street dismissed suggestions that the PM is planning to resign within two years of the next election.
But sources did not deny the authenticity of the documents published by Mr Cummings.
And Mr Hancock himself said merely “I don’t think so” when he was asked by a reporter if it was true that he was “hopeless”.
Mr Cummings’s bombshell allegations were made as MPs approved Mr Johnson’s decision to delay the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in England by four weeks to 19 July, after scientists warned of more than 40,000 deaths in a “summer wave” of Covid driven by the Delta variant first identified in India. Mr Johnson won the vote by an overwhelming 461 to 60, but was forced to rely on Labour support amid a significant Tory rebellion.
The latest official figures showed 9,055 new Covid-19 infections were recorded in the UK on Wednesday – the highest figure since 25 February – while nine deaths were reported.
As the authorities battle to vaccines to rein in the Delta variant, 21-year-olds in England were told to make appointments for jabs, which are due to be available to all adults by the end of the week.
Official data showed 190,033 inoculations administered on 15 June, bringing the total with a first dose of vaccine to 42,021,089, of whom 30,440,373 have had second doses.
As the health secretary told MPs he was making vaccinations mandatory for care home workers, Downing Street said that the prime minister continued to have “full confidence” in him.
Sign up to chief political commentator John Rentoul’s Inside Westminster newsletter for free by clicking here
Indicating that Mr Hancock will remain in place for some time to come, the PM’s official spokesperson said: “The prime minister has worked very closely with the health secretary throughout and will continue to do so”.
In his blog, Mr Cummings – who quit No 10 in November after a power struggle with Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie – accused the PM of encouraging ministers and officials to give inaccurate accounts of the battle against the virus and said he “cannot be trusted now either on Covid or any other crucial issue of war and peace”.
He said that the UK could be condemned to five more years of “chronic dysfunction” at the heart of government, as neither his cabinet nor Tory MPs were likely to remove Johnson while he enjoys big leads in the polls.
But he said that the “systemic incompetence surrounding the PM” is so great that his operation is “programmed to unravel”.
And he warned: “The PM’s defence of Hancock sends an unmistakeable signal across the system: a Secretary of State will be rewarded despite repeated incompetence and dishonesty and the government machine will seek to rewrite history in Orwellian fashion because the PM thinks it in his personal interests to do so.”
Mr Cummings released WhatsApp messages apparently shared between him and Johnson around midnight on 26 March, just minutes before the PM was told he had tested positive for coronavirus.
After the adviser warned that the UK was lagging behind on testing and that Mr Hancock was now “sceptical” about reaching a target which only days before he had said he would “definitely” hit, Mr Johnson’s reply was a curt three words: “Totally f****** hopeless.” (Asterisks added by The Independent.)
A further exchange the following day showed Mr Cummings complaining that offers of ventilators had been turned down on cost grounds, prompting the PM to respond: “It’s Hancock. He has been hopeless.”
In April, the PM apparently branded Mr Hancock’s performance on PPE “a disaster” and said he was considering shifting his duties to Michael Gove. When Mr Cummings responded that Mr Gove’s Cabinet Office was “a total “s***show” and a change would risk “making it worse not better”, Mr Johnson replied: “OK, WTF do we do?”
Mr Cummings said his exasperation was driven by Mr Hancock following a familiar pattern: “Big talk in front of the PM, brief nonsense to the media, fail to deliver, and the rest of the system’s planning disrupted because nobody could rely on what he said in the Cabinet room because he would say anything he thought would get him through the meeting.”
But the former adviser also criticised Mr Johnson’s handling of cabinet meetings, saying that as soon as discussions got “embarrassing”, the prime minister would “do the whole ‘let’s take it offline’ shtick before shouting ‘forward to victory’, doing a thumbs-up and pegging it out of the room before anybody can disagree”.
In sensational testimony to the Commons health and science committees last month, Mr Cummings said Mr Hancock deserved to be sacked on 15 to 20 occasions and accused him of lying repeatedly to the PM and senior officials.
But Mr Hancock last week won Downing Street’s backing after denying ever telling an untruth to the PM.
Mr Cummings today said that Johnson and Hancock were attempting to create a “memory hole” about their initial response to Covid-19, comparing them to the pre-war Chamberlain government appeasing Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
“The No10/Hancock line now is as if No10 had said in summer 1940, ‘Yes, our appeasement plan A was a great success on Hitler as you can all see, we didn’t need any Plan B, appeasement then fight them on the beaches was the original plan’.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called for the public inquiry to begin immediately to prevent “history being rewritten”.
“These accusations and the evidence presented about the failures at the heart of government – and the alleged lies, dishonesty and cover-ups – are absolutely damning,” she said.
Health and Social Care Committee chairman Jeremy Hunt said Mr Cummings’s latest revelations demonstrate the prime minister’s “total frustration” but do not prove Mr Hancock lied.
Mr Hunt, a Conservative former health secretary, said it was “not possible to stack up the most sensational revelations without evidence”.