Government has ‘operated better’ in six months since Dominic Cummings’ departure, Matt Hancock says

Health secretary has ‘no idea’ why former No 10 strategist has taken against him

Adam Forrest@adamtomforrest
Thursday 10 June 2021 12:55
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Watch live as Matt Hancock faces grilling from MPs over handling of Covid crisis

Matt Hancock has claimed the government has handled the Covid crisis “better” since Boris Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings left Downing Street last November.

The health secretary rejected a series of allegations made by the former No 10 adviser during a parliamentary hearing on Thursday.

He resisted the opportunity to get into a slanging match with the former adviser.

But he gave a clear signal to MPs that they should not take Cummings’ evidence as gospel, telling them: “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 claimed he had “no idea” why Mr Cummings had taken against him – and said he was not the only one who believed the pandemic response had been smoother since the strategist’s departure.

He added: “I think the best thing to say about this – and this will be corroborated by lots of people in government – the best thing to say is that government has operated better in the past six months.”

Mr Hancock claimed he had ‘wholesome support’ of Mr Johnson throughout the pandemic, and accused Mr Cummings of being behind negative press briefings against him last year.

Asked if he knew Mr Cummings wanted the prime minister to fire him, the health secretary replied: “Yes – because he briefed the newspapers at the time. Somebody briefed the newspapers. I now have a better idea of who it was.”

Mr Hancock denied lying to Mr Johnson, telling MPs on the joint inquiry of health and science committees that he had always been driven to behave with “honesty and integrity”.

Striking back at Mr Cummings’ claims he had “repeatedly” lied to senior officials at No 10, Mr Hancock said: “It is telling that no evidence has been provided yet.”

Regarding Mr Cummings’s claims that he told Mr Johnson in March 2020 that people being discharged to care homes would be tested, Mr Hancock said: “On care homes, throughout we followed the clinical advice.”

Mr Hancock was reportedly summoned to No 10 for a meeting on 4 May last year to explain whether he had misled the prime minister on care homes and testing.

But the minister said he could not recall Mr Johnson expressing any surprise about the care home situation after he returned to work following his own illness in late April. “Not that I can remember,” the health secretary said.

Mr Hancock also told MPs he did not say PPE shortages were the fault of the chancellor Rishi Sunak or NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens, and did not accuse them of blocking approvals.

Responding to allegations made by Mr Cummings that he had tried to shift blame, the minister said: “That is not a fair recollection of the situation.”

He added: “Getting hold of PPE was always a huge challenge ... there was never a point to which NHS providers couldn’t get access to PPE, but there were huge challenges.”

Mr Hancock was also asked about allegations Mr Cummings made suggesting that he used the “following the science” line as a way to blame scientists if things went wrong and this was something the health secretary discussed with Mr Johnson.

Mr Hancock told MPs he did not think that was true, adding: “My approach throughout has been that we are guided by the science, I try not to say that we follow the science.”

At the outset of the hearing science committee, chairman Greg Clark said MPs had not received any written evidence from Mr Cummings to back up his claims, or any explanation as to why it had not been provided.

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