Matt Hancock has insisted the government “worked as hard as we could to protect care homes” following scathing criticism from Dominic Cummings.
The health secretary has defended himself for the second time in a day in the wake of the attacks from Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser.
One of the key claims made by Mr Cummings was that Mr Hancock lied about COVID-testing people before they returned to care homes from hospitals in the early part of the pandemic.
Mr Cummings told MPs on Wednesday that the prime minister was furious to discover in April 2020 that untested hospital patients had been discharged to care homes, adding Mr Hancock had told the PM a month earlier they would be tested.
When asked about this claim, Mr Hancock told a Downing Street news conference it was not possible to test everyone being sent from hospitals into care homes at the start of the outbreak due to the need to build up the infrastructure for testing.
He said: “Of course we committed, and I committed, to getting the policy in place but it took time to build the testing.
“We didn’t start with a big testing system in the UK and then we built that testing system, and that’s why the 100,000 target was so important because it really accelerated the availability of testing because when you don’t have much testing we had to prioritise it according to clinical need.”
When pressed if he had told the prime minister and Mr Cummings in March 2020 that they would all be tested, Mr Hancock said: “My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care comes when we could do it.
“I then went away and built the testing capacity for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of uses, including this one, and then delivered on the commitment that I made.”
After further questions, Mr Hancock added: “There’ll be a time when we can go through all of this in great detail but the most important thing right now is that we’ve still got a pandemic.”
Sky News political correspondent Joe Pike said that despite being repeatedly asked about the matter, Mr Hancock did not give specific answers and gave generalised replies.
Addressing the allegation that Mr Hancock had lied, the health secretary told the Commons today: “We followed the clinical advice on the appropriate way forward.”
There was no requirement to test patients being discharged from hospital into a care home until 15 April 2020, government documents show.
Guidance to care homes dated 2 April 2020 said people who were COVID-19 positive could be discharged to care homes but should isolate once there.
It added: “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”
And guidance in place until 13 March 2020 further stated community transmission was so low it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”.
There have been 36,275 deaths involving COVID-19 in care homes since the pandemic began, according to the latest figures from the UK’s statistics agencies.
Adam Purnell, care and quality lead at Kepplegate Care Home in Lancashire, told Sky News: “Up until May last year we were being told testing wasn’t a requirement for people moving into care homes from hospital.
“We were being told we were protected, but at every single webinar we were having, we were told it’s not a requirement for asymptomatic people to be tested.”
Mr Cummings yesterday accused the health secretary of repeatedly lying, being disastrously incompetent and claimed he should have been fired on multiple occasions during the pandemic.
Mr Hancock was attacked over failings around care homes policy, personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement and his public pledge on a target for 100,000 COVID tests a day by the end of April 2020 which caused disruption in Whitehall.
In the Commons earlier today, Mr Hancock insisted Mr Cummings’ allegations were “unsubstantiated” and “not true”, adding: “I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout.”
Mr Cummings also said a second lockdown delay last autumn led to “tens of thousands” of extra deaths.
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.
Mr Hancock was asked if he has spoken to the prime minister about Mr Cummings’ evidence to MPs and was asked if Mr Johnson has personally given him his reassurance that he has confidence in him as health secretary.
He replied: “The prime minister and I talk all the time and we’re working incredibly hard on getting this vaccine rollout as broad as possible, making sure people get their second doses, and obviously very vigilant particularly to the areas of the country where cases are starting to rise as I’ve set out.
“That’s what we focus on.”