Today
Sun 25 July 2021

We do not require more information from Dominic Cummings to ascertain the truth, argues Sam Bright

“I’m grateful, and it was important, for me to set out what actually happened,” Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said, in his concluding remarks to MPs today as they interrogated his record during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fielding questions for four-and-a-half hours, Hancock spent much of his time defending accusations made by Dominic Cummings a fortnight ago. The former Downing Street chief aide pilloried his one-time colleague – accusing Hancock of repeatedly lying to officials, in particular over the policy that saw NHS patients returned to care homes during the early stages of the pandemic without having a test.

What unfolded, this morning and early afternoon, was a peculiar paradox whereby Hancock and many of the MPs cast aspersions on Cummings’ testimony, while simultaneously proving its validity.

Indeed, at the outset, the joint chairs of the enlarged Health, Science and Technology committee – Conservative MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt – made it clear that Cummings had failed to back up his assertions with written evidence.

This, they said, meant that all of his claims should be treated as “unproven”. While several of Cummings’ allegations do require material proof to ascertain their accuracy, many can be upheld by public information. The decision by Clark and Hunt to downgrade all of Cummings’ evidence was therefore an act of revisionism that unduly benefits Hancock.

This was exposed when MPs pressed Hancock on the details. In relation to care homes, for example, Cummings suggested that Hancock had promised that all NHS patients would be tested for COVID-19 before being returned to social care settings – a policy that he failed to deliver by the time that both Cummings and Prime Minister Boris Johnson had returned to Downing Street after contracting COVID-19 in April last year.

Hancock does not deny the substance of the claim, nor has he done so prior to today’s committee. When pressed again today, he said that it was “entirely normal” for a Secretary of State to make a promise and then work to ensure that it is delivered. In other words: it is entirely normal for a promise not to be immediately fulfilled.

An additional claim, offered today, was that the clinical advice recommended in March last year that NHS patients without symptoms should not be tested, due to the high likelihood of a false-negative result.

However, as revealed by Byline Times yesterday, a whistleblower in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) alleges that Health Minister Helen Whately “leaned on” Public Health England (PHE) to alter its advice regarding tests offered to NHS patients returned to care homes. Prior to the political pressure, it’s claimed, the “original advice was that people shouldn’t be released from homes and hospitals without being tested.” This suggests the aversion to COVID testing was political, not clinical.

Hancock was asked about these claims by Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey, who questioned whether testing guidelines were softened due to pressure from the DHSC. “Not that I’m aware of,” Hancock said in response.

Not being aware of “whether one of your Government ministers pressured a public health organisation to put people at risk, resulting in many dead is unacceptable, and deeply insulting to grieving families,” said epidemiologist and academic Deepti Gurdasani on Twitter. “How does one not recall this? And how is this a valid response?”

In fact, a lot of details appear to have slipped the Health Secretary’s memory. A key element of Cummings’ testimony was that Johnson scolded Hancock when the former returned from illness and discovered that people were still being shipped from hospitals to social care facilities without tests.

“Not that I can remember,” was Hancock’s response, when he was presented with this claim – another half-denial that leaves open the possibility of Cummings’ evidence being entirely correct yet simply forgotten by the Secretary of State, either conveniently or otherwise.

Regardless, the facts remain that hundreds of patients were released from hospitals to care homes despite Hancock’s pledge to stop the practice. Nearly half (43%) of respondents in the Queen’s Nursing Institute survey said they took untested hospital patients into their care home before mandatory testing prior to discharge was introduced on 16 April. Meanwhile, a fifth (21%) said they were forced to accept patients who had tested positive for COVID-19.

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As for Hancock’s alleged lies, it’s difficult to prove definitively whether he wilfully misled the Prime Minister and officials. However, it’s patently clear that he spun a misleading narrative today, in relation to the National Audit Office (NAO) report released last November into the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.

Hancock alleged that the NAO report essentially absolved his department of blame, and suggested there had not been a national shortage of PPE at any point during the crisis. In reality, the NAO report was more nuanced and damning. It said the DHSC erroneously believed that existing stockpiles of PPE would be able to cope with a surge in demand, and only realised by late March to early April that the NHS Supply Chain could not procure and distribute PPE quickly enough.

Consequently, health workers – at least 8,152 of whom contracted COVID-19 and 126 died from the disease – “considered that they were not adequately protected during the height of the first wave of the pandemic,” the report reads.

What’s more, while Hancock claims there was no national shortage of PPE, guidance issued by PHE in April 2020 made it clear that “reuse of PPE should be implemented until confirmation of adequate re-supply is in place… Compromise is needed to optimise supply in times of extreme shortages,” it said.

Ultimately, the relationship between Her Majesty’s Government and the truth is more distant than ever, as today made patently clear.

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