Matt Hancock has been accused of “trying to rewrite history” after he told a parliamentary inquiry into the Covid-19 crisis that there was never a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
In four hours of testimony, the health secretary insisted that there was no evidence of anyone dying due to a shortage of PPE.
And he insisted that infections from patients discharged from hospital played only a small part in importing Covid-19 into care homes, after coming under brutal attack from ex-Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings.
Giving evidence to a joint hearing of the House of Commons health and science committees, Mr Hancock rejected Mr Cummings’s claims that he lied to Boris Johnson over the issue and played down the former adviser’s contribution to the fight against Covid, saying government had “operated better” since his resignation.
He insisted that “everybody got the Covid treatment that they needed” and defended his claim that he had tried to put a protective ring around care homes.
“The most important words in that sentence are that we ‘tried to’,” he told MPs. “It was very hard for a number of reasons, some of which are fixed and some aren’t.”
The health secretary’s evidence prompted an angry response from Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, who said: “Matt Hancock is a liar and he is trying to rewrite history.
“That is why we need a public inquiry now to hold this lying charlatan to account for sending our NHS staff into intensive care units in bin bags and without PPE.”
And the general secretary of public sector union Unison, Christina McAnea, accused Mr Hancock of having “a selective memory”about the early months of the pandemic last spring.
“There was no protective ring,” said Ms McAnea. “In the early days of the pandemic social care was left completely high and dry.
“Terrified staff spent weeks without access to proper protective kit. Supply shortages forced care workers to either buy or make their own safety gear from whatever they could lay their hands on.”
Mr Hancock revealed that scientists warned as early as January 2020 that the UK death toll from Covid-19 could reach 820,000 unless action was taken – and that by the week of 9 March it was clear Britain was “on track” to hit that worst-case scenario.
But he said that early reports from China that the disease could be passed on by people showing no symptoms were dismissed as a “mistranslation” by the World Health Organisation, delaying the introduction of social distancing measures to limit transmission.
He said he now “bitterly regrets” not acting on his “instinct” that asymptomatic transmission was happening, but said it was difficult to stand against the scientific consensus.
The health secretary repeated claims that the first lockdown last March was delayed because of scientists’ advice that “there was a limited period that people would put up with it”.
But government adviser Professor Stephen Reicher rejected the claim as “quite simply untrue”.
“It is an old claim that has been comprehensively debunked,” said Prof Reicher. “Such advice didn’t come from the government’s own behavioural advisory group. Such an idea was publicly disputed by behavioural scientists.”
In the final evidence session of the committees’ inquiry into the lessons to be learnt from the handling of the pandemic, Mr Hancock rejected a series of allegations made by Mr Cummings in his own appearance last month.
He said it was “telling” that Mr Johnson’s former top adviser had failed to produce documents, emails and text messages which he suggested would back up his account.
And science committee chair Greg Clark said Mr Cummings’s testimony – in which he said Mr Hancock should have been sacked “15 or 20 times” for his mishandling of the crisis – should be regarded as “unproven” in the absence of further evidence.
In an apparent attempt to undermine the former adviser’s credibility, Mr Hancock told the MPs: “I’m not responsible for anybody else’s testimony, but I am really pleased to have the chance to come here to be able to tell you the truth.”
Mr Hancock denied he had told the PM that he would ensure all patients were tested before entering care homes in the early months of the outbreak, insisting he promised to do so only “when tests were available”. And he said he could not remember Mr Johnson expressing surprise that tests were not taking place when he left hospital after his own bout with Covid, as Mr Cummings claimed.
The health secretary said that medical experts had warned that, with the four-day turnaround for Covid tests available in March 2020, patients would be infected in hospital while awaiting responses and leave for care homes with false negative tests. And he said later research by Public Health England found that only 1.6 per cent of cases in homes involved people bringing the virus in from hospitals.
“On care homes, throughout we followed the clinical advice,” Mr Hancock said.
“The evidence has shown that the strongest route of the virus into care homes was community transmission. Staff testing was the most important thing for keeping people safe in care homes. That’s the clinical advice we received.”
The health secretary insisted he had received “wholesome support” from Mr Johnson throughout the pandemic and learnt of Mr Cummings’s effort to get him sacked only because the adviser briefed newspapers about it.
And he repeatedly described himself as a “team player”, in contrast to Mr Cummings, telling the inquiry: “You can’t respond to a pandemic by pointing fingers.”
Mr Hancock insisted he was right to say that “everybody got the Covid treatment that they needed”, because the NHS at no point became overwhelmed by the pandemic.
Despite “local problems”, there was “never a national shortage of PPE”, he insisted.
And he told MPs: “There’s no evidence that I have seen that a shortage of PPE provision led to anybody dying of Covid.”
Mr Hancock said: “PPE provision was tight and it was difficult throughout the world, but we did manage. It was pretty close sometimes, but we did manage to ensure that … at a national level we had the PPE, and then distribution was a challenge to all areas.”
Shadow social care minister Liz Kendall said: “Matt Hancock was at best disingenuous in his evidence to the select committees today. He selectively used briefings, evidence and clinical advice to defend his record instead of admitting his abject failure to protect care homes in the pandemic.
“Even Matt Hancock knows he now categorically failed to put a protective ring around care homes. He has now used multiple excuses for failing to test those discharged to care, and family members who have lost loved ones will be frustrated and deeply upset that they still do not have the truth from the secretary of state today.”