Coronavirus: The 10 most outlandish claims government has made during pandemic

Scientific adviser urges ministers to rebuild public trust with honest and open communication

Andy Gregory
Thursday 28 May 2020 20:21 BST
Matt Hancock laughs hysterically after being asked about the 'rushed' test and trace launch

As countries begin to ease their coronavirus lockdown measures, the World Health Organisation has urged governments that it is crucial to “build trust” with citizens.

The UN agency’s Europe director Dr Hans Kluge called for “responsible governance”, with leadership developing trust and communicating public health data effectively to ensure citizens follow life-saving guidance as closely as possible.

However, in the UK, which currently has highest death toll in Europe, approval in the government has declined steadily since lockdown was introduced, at which point Opinium found it to be at 65 per cent.

The first major drop came after Boris Johnson announced his plan to ease lockdown measures and unveiled the new “stay alert” messaging, while the Dominic Cummings scandal saw approval plunge by 16 points in a single day – the sharpest downwards surge in a decade – to just 37 per cent.

With approval having steadily declined throughout the crisis, here are some of the most outlandish claims the government has made since it began.

Matt Hancock insists 28 May constitutes “mid-May” as he defends NHS test and trace launch

Asked by Sky News’s Kay Burley if the government had rushed the launch of the test and trace system “to take the headlines away from Dominic Cummings”, the laughing health secretary said: “It’s priceless Kay.

“I’m normally accused of delaying these things, of bringing them in too slowly. I committed to getting this system in in mid-May, it was, you know, just about mid-May. You can’t accuse me both of rushing it and it being delayed.”

The launch was later plunged into chaos, with staff unable to log on amid reports some only learnt they were due to start work imminently during the prime minister’s Liaison Committee hearing the previous afternoon.

Boris Johnson claims not to be aware some migrants have ‘no recourse to public funds’

Over 100,000 families living legally in the UK are thought to be subject to a “no recourse to public funds” requirement – which denies access to most benefits. The status, blamed for causing poverty at the best of times, has created significant problems during the pandemic.

When questioned by Labour MP Stephen Timms about families “being forced by the current arrangements into destitution”, the prime minister asked why they couldn’t access Universal Credit or other benefits.

Once he was brought up to speed, Mr Johnson replied: “I’m going to have to come back to you on that Stephen because clearly people who have worked hard for this country and who live and work here should have support of one kind or another.

“You’ve raised a very important point – if the condition of their leave to remain is that they should have no recourse to public funds I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”

The target to test 100,000 people per day by end of April was met

On 1 May, Mr Hancock claimed he had met his much-publicised target, delivering 122,347 tests, despite discrepancies in the data showing many of the tests counted had in fact not actually been completed yet.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “If you cannot meet your target then the response should be ‘we are doing our best and testing has significantly increased’ it should not be to fudge the figures. Unbelievable. and risks undermining confidence in the minister and government.”

Matt Hancock fails to commit to 100,000 daily coronavirus tests

While 73,000 people were tested on 30 April, this total was not surpassed again until 15 May, reaching a known high of 80,000 six days later. The data for the number of people tested has been unavailable since 22 May.

Mr Hancock said capacity was at 161,000 on 27 May, with the prime minister having pledged to hit 200,000 by the end of the month.

Ministers insist against comparing death toll internationally despite daily use of comparisons in slides

As the UK death toll took the unenviable pole position in Europe, various ministers rubbished international comparisons before Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pointed out the government had been making them for seven weeks in slides used at Downing Street briefings.

Holding up a print-out of a government chart, he told MPs: “Last week, I showed the prime minister his own slide showing that the UK now has the highest death toll in Europe and the second highest in the world.

“A version of this slide has been shown at the Downing Street press conference every day since 30 March – that’s seven weeks. Yesterday, the government stopped publishing the international comparison and the slide is gone. Why?”

Mr Johnson replied: “The UK has been going through an unprecedented once-in-a-century epidemic, and he seeks to make comparisons with other countries, which I’m advised are premature because the correct and final way of making these comparisons will be when we have all the excess death totals for all the relevant countries.

“We do not yet have that data. I’m not going to try to pretend to the House that the figures when they are finally confirmed are anything other than stark and deeply, deeply horrifying. This has been an appalling epidemic.”

Prime minister claims government advice on care homes from March ‘wasn’t true’

During the same Prime Minister’s Questions clash, the Labour leader alleged government advice from March saying it was “very unlikely” that care home residents would be infected with coronavirus laid bare how the government was “too slow to protect people in care homes”.

Mr Johnson replied: “No, it wasn’t true that the advice said that, and actually we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown.”​

Johnson wrongly claims advice did not dismiss care home risk

But the advice from 12 March states: “This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”

Labour wrote to the PM demanding to return to the Commons to “correct the record”. Mr Johnson rejected the claims that he had misled MPs, retorting that he was “disappointed” with Sir Keir’s “misleading” use of a quote from the guidance.

Matt Hancock claims ‘protective ring’ around care homes ‘right from start’

According to the Office for National Statistics, 11,650 people had died with coronavirus in care homes in England and Wales by 15 May.

The health secretary said on that day: “Right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around care homes.”

But this claim was disputed. Four Seasons Health Care chief executive Jeremy Richardson described this as “disingenuous”, telling the BBC: “That clearly wasn’t the case.

“The initial focus was on ensuring that there was capacity in the NHS, making sure the NHS was safe and secure. Once that had become apparent, then I think attention turned to the community and care homes as part of the community.”

Boris Johnson says ‘stay alert’ message is ‘right way to go’ despite polls indicating confusion

Both housing secretary Robert Jenrick and the prime minister dismissed concerns the government’s new messaging was confusing, with Mr Johnson insisting it was “the right way to go”.

It came after a YouGov survey found less than a third of people said they understood the message, with 91 per cent saying the previous “stay home” slogan was clearer and more effective.

This followed foreign secretary Dominic Raab apparently becoming confused by the new rules, with the government forced to clarify people could not meet up with more than one person from other households simultaneously.

Government defends abandoning contact-tracing in March

While the WHO urged countries to “test, test, test” as the backbone of their response, the government abandoned contact-tracing and moved to test only suspected Covid-19 patients in hospitals.

For days afterwards, ministers refused to be drawn on why England’s testing strategy was so out of step with other countries.

Boris Johnson says if people have been alerted by contact tracing app 'they must stay at home'

On 26 March, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said: “There comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention.” adding that the wider public could be included if there were “infinite testing facilities”.

Amid allegations that the UK developed a test in January, yet only used one laboratory in London to process tests before eventually enlisting others, Public Health England insisted to the Financial Times: “The rollout to other parts of the UK is the fastest deployment of a novel test to PHE and NHS labs in recent history, including in the swine flu pandemic in 2009.”

Two months later, the prime minister admitted contact-tracing had been abandoned because PHE did not have the capacity, saying the “brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of Sars or Mers”, and therefore lacked test kits, enzymes and experienced trackers.

Mr Hancock added that, while contact-tracing took place initially, “as the virus raged towards its peak, the number of infections grew so large that we needed a national lockdown.

“That was the only way to get it under control. Effectively, everyone in the country was contacted and told to stay at home.”

Government says it missed out on EU ventilator scheme due to ‘communication problem’

No 10 initially said it did not join an emergency EU scheme to help procure ventilators and vital medical equipment because the UK was no longer a member state – prompting outrage the government was putting “Brexit over breathing”.

“We are no longer members of the EU,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson told reporters on 26 March. “We are doing our own work on ventilators and we have had a very strong response from business. We have sourced ventilators from the private sector and international manufacturers.”

Amid mounting criticism, the spokesperson later sought to clarify the reason, claiming the UK had missed the procurement deadline due to a “communication problem” which meant the country was not invited to apply in time.

However, Brussels dismissed the claim, saying the scheme had been discussed at multiple meetings with UK representatives.

Dominic Cummings in ‘every respect acted legally, responsibly and with integrity’

Durham Police has concluded the aide “might” have committed a “minor breach of the regulations that would have warranted police intervention” during a 30-mile drive to Barnard Castle he says was to test his eyesight after a suspected bout of Covid-19, on his wife’s birthday.

Mr Johnson had insisted his aide in “every respect acted legally, responsibly and with integrity”, and has staked his own reputation on Mr Cummings’ job, as well as that of many in his Cabinet.

Both the prime minister and his aide have blamed the media for stoking public anger, despite at least 44 Tory MPs calling for his resignation and one minister, Douglas Ross, resigning himself in protest.

Scientific adviser Professor Stephen Richer told Wired he hoped the public would use the Cummings story as an example of what not to do, while his fellow Sage subcommittee member Professor Susan Michie urged ministers to rebuild public trust by communicating honestly and openly.

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