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Health secretary defends early pandemic handling

Hancock defends Covid-19 response


Health secretary Matt Hancock has defended his record on several aspects of the Covid-19 response, including testing, care homes and PPE, in front of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee.

Emma Wilkinson

In the four-and-a-half-hour hearing, Mr Hancock rejected several accusations made by the Prime Minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings including that he had mislead the Prime Minister that all patients would be tested before being moved from hospital into a care home.

He said that ‘each and every death in a care home weighs heavily on me, and always will’ but that at the time they were taking big decisions on the basis of imperfect information, which included not doing asymptomatic testing of patients.

Mr Hancock said scientific advice including from the World Health Organization was that there was no asymptomatic transmission and ‘bitterly’ regrets not overruling the scientific advice and being more cautious with policy until proven otherwise.

And also pointed to evidence from Public Health England that most infections brought into care homes came from the community not hospitals.

He said getting hold of PPE had been a huge challenge but there was ‘never a national shortage’.

Mr Hancock told the committee of MPs that in January he had asked for a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ and was told it could mean 820,000 deaths based on what had happened with Spanish flu.

They then worked in February to set out a Covid action plan which he delivered to Parliament on the 3 March, he said, countering allegations from Mr Cummings that there was no plan.

‘The idea that we didn’t have a plan, the evidence I can best point you to is the fact that at that time we had actually published a plan.’

By the time the Government told people to stop unnecessary social contact on the 16 March there had been 611 cases and 53 deaths, he said.

He added that the scientific advice they were given at the time was that people would only put up with lockdown for a limited period but that turned out to be wrong.

‘These are huge decisions, to take those decisions against the scientific advice is an even bigger decision to take. Now when the scientific advice moved that became easier.’

The committee chairs noted that Mr Cummings, who left his role in November, had not provided the promised supporting evidence for the claims he had made which Mr Hancock said was ‘telling’ and also said over the past six months the ‘operation of government has improved very significantly’.

Looking to the future he said the standing ability to ramp up mass testing and test and trace capacity, which had been a ‘weak’ part of the UK response, must be part of pandemic preparedness.

Liz Kendall MP, Labour’s shadow social care minister, said Mr Hancock had not been able to justify his failure on 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.’

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