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Hancock hits back at Cummings after ‘unsubstantiated’ claims about lying

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has denied claims he lied about the COVID pandemic after a scathing attack by Dominic Cummings, saying “we have been straight with people”.

Mr Hancock said: “These allegations that were put yesterday… are serious allegations and I welcome the opportunity to come to the house to put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.

“I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout.”

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‘The health secretary should have been fired’

One of the key claims made by Mr Cummings was that the health secretary lied about COVID testing people before they returned to care homes.

Addressing that specific allegation, Mr Hancock said: “We followed the clinical advice on the appropriate way forward.”

He added that “so many of the allegations were unsubstantiated”.

More on Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, on a visit to a hospital on Thursday, avoided questions about whether he had confidence in Mr Hancock.

But he did deny Mr Cummings’ claim that thousands of people needlessly died because of the prime minister.

Answering whether that was the case, he said: “No, I don’t think so. But of course, this has been an incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we’ve taken lightly, and you’ve got to recognise, and I hope people do understand this, that when you go into a lockdown it’s a very very painful, traumatic thing for people, for people’s mental health, for their lives, their livelihoods, and of course you’ve got to set that against the horrors of the pandemic and of COVID.”

Image: Johnson

Mr Hancock also told the Commons: “We’ve taken an approach of openness and transparency and spoke of what we do and don’t know.

“Since last January I’ve attended this House over 60 times. With the Prime Minister we have together hosted 84 press conferences, I’ve answered 2,667 contributions to this House and answered questions from colleagues, the media and the public – and we’ll keep on with this spirit of openness and transparency throughout.

“Sometimes what we’ve had to say hasn’t been easy. We’ve had to level with people when it’s been tough, when things have been going in the wrong direction.

“And also we’ve learned throughout. We’ve applied that learning both to tackling this pandemic and making sure that we’re as well-prepared in the future as possible.

“Beyond all this, what matters remains the same – getting vaccinated, getting tested, delivering for our country, overcoming this disease and saving lives, and that is what matters to the British people.”

Matt Hancock he was 'saving lives' rather than watching Mr Cummings' evidence
Image: Mr Hancock said clinical advice was followed on care homes

Boris Johnson‘s former right-hand man gave a blistering account of how the government dealt with the pandemic, with the PM and Mr Hancock taking most of the flak.

During a marathon session lasting more than seven hours on Wednesday, Mr Cummings claimed he, the cabinet secretary and other senior officials continually called for the health secretary to be sacked for “15 to 20 things”, including lying on multiple occasions.

Mr Cummings accused Mr Hancock of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm”.

Among the alleged lies were, Mr Cummings said, that there was a protective shield around care homes when in fact people with COVID-19 were being sent back to care homes without being tested.

Mr Cummings said the PM “was close” to firing Mr Hancock in April 2020 “but just fundamentally wouldn’t do it”.

He added that Mr Hancock took too long to get test and trace set up and told the PM: “If we don’t fire the secretary of state and we don’t get testing into someone’s hands, we are going to kill lots of people.”

Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser also said he believes Mr Hancock used government medical advisers Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Whitty “as shields for himself” so that if things went wrong, he could blame them and say it wasn’t his fault.

Analysis: Government will continue to refute Cummings’ claims unless evidence emerges

By Tamara Cohen, political correspondent

Matt Hancock was firefighting the multiple blazes started by Dominic Cummings yesterday.

To the many pointed questions about care home deaths, Mr Hancock said testing capacity at the start of the pandemic was limited and insisted the discharge of thousands of hospital patients to care homes – before COVID testing was required from mid-April – was in line with clinical advice.

Cold comfort to those sounding the alarm at the time, who were told by government ministers that there was a “protective ring” around care homes from the start and a “world-beating” testing system.

But as to whether he misled No10 about it, as his predecessor Jeremy Hunt pointed out, Mr Cummings’ allegations about lying yesterday are just that at this stage – unproven allegations.

Unless that evidence emerges, the government is determined to refute them, trumpet the vaccination programme, and delay a fuller discussion of what went wrong into next year’s public inquiry.