U.K.’s Hancock Defends Covid Response, Hits Back at Cummings

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U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended his response to the coronavirus pandemic, rejecting allegations from Boris Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings that he made crucial mistakes over care homes.

Hancock told members of Parliament he acted with “honesty and integrity” throughout the crisis, and denied Cummings’s claims that he lied to Johnson about testing people being moved into care homes -- one of the most controversial aspects of the government’s early handling of the pandemic.

“We did all that we could to support care homes,” Hancock told Parliament’s joint health and science committee probe into the government’s Covid response. The U.K. has recorded more than 127,000 deaths so far.

Though the rapid rollout of vaccines this year has shifted the narrative in British politics, ministers faced intense criticism early in the pandemic -- including over the delay in ordering the first lockdown and the lack of testing available to control the spread of infections.

Early Warning

Hancock told the committee he was warned in late January 2020 that 820,000 people could die in a “reasonable worst-case scenario,” but that ordering an earlier lockdown -- the government did so in late March -- would have gone against scientific advice.

Over more than four hours of evidence, Hancock also said:

  • Scientists were wrong to initially advise the government the public would not tolerate a long lockdown
  • There was “no national shortage” of protective equipment for health and social care workers, but he conceded there were problems locally
  • He “bitterly” regrets failing to overrule the early scientific “consensus” that coronavirus was not transmitted asymptomatically
  • Ministers did not have a list of elderly care homes at the start of the pandemic, an omission he found “extraordinary”
  • He had “no idea” why Cummings appeared to dislike him so much, but the government has “operated better in the past six months” after Johnson’s former aide left

Cummings, who had a front-row seat for much of the pandemic decision-making before leaving government late last year, told the same panel last month that Hancock was “disastrously incompetent” and should have been fired for “15 to 20 things.”

Criticism

One of Cummings’s most explosive allegations last month was that Hancock promised ministers that people would be tested before they were moved from hospitals into care homes.

Care homes were among the worst hit early in the crisis despite the government’s claim to have put a “shield” around the facilities. Cummings said this claim was “nonsense.”

In his testimony, Hancock acknowledged that people were moved to care homes without being tested but said he was acting on clinical advice -- and that his promise to the prime minister was that theye would be tested when sufficient capacity became available.

“It was very hard,” Hancock said. “All these deaths in care homes -- each and every death in a care home -- weighs heavily on me, and it always will.”

Test Shortage

Hancock said he had been told by scientists at the time that tests could give false negatives, and the four-day turnaround on test results could mean they could test negative but then catch Covid in the interim, creating more risk for care homes if they were then regarded as not having the virus.

Evidence has since shown that the strongest route of the virus into care homes was via community transmission, Hancock said. “So it was staff testing that was the most important thing,” which the government ordered as soon as tests were available, Hancock said.

Greg Clark, chair of the science committee, said Cummings had so far failed to provide evidence for his allegations against Hancock, which the health secretary said was “telling.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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