Covid: Delta variant now accounts for 91% of new cases in the UK, Matt Hancock reveals

The Health Secretary was quizzed by MPs for over four hours on the government’s handling of the pandemic and allegations made by the Prime Minister’s former aide.

Matt Hancock has revealed that the Delta variant now compromises 91% of new coronavirus cases in the UK during questioning on the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The Health Secretary also denied lying to Boris Johnson at any point during the pandemic as he was quizzed by MPs over allegations made by the Prime Minister’s former aide.

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Screen grab of Health Secretary Matt Hancock giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee

At a glance: 5 key points

- Mr Hancock told MPs he had “no idea” why the Prime Minister’s former aide Dominic Cummings had a dispute with him.

- He struck back at Dominic Cummings, saying that the Government “has operated better in the past six months” since the controversial aide left Downing Street.

- The Health Secretary said he has received no evidence to suggest any medics died due to a failure to provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus pandemic.

- Wales has been able to move faster on the vaccine rollout because Welsh ministers know they can draw on England’s “buffer” for second doses if required, Mr Hancock claimed.

- He said the early response to the pandemic was hampered by the lack of information coming out of China.

What’s been said

“One of the things that hindered our early response was a lack of transparency from China. That must be put right in terms of future preparedness for future pandemics.

“It is absolutely vital for the world that China is more transparent about its health information as soon it understands there are problems.”

Matt Hancock

“There is no evidence that I have seen that a shortage of PPE provision led to anyone dying of Covid. That’s from the evidence I have seen.

“What I do know though is PPE provision was tight, and it was difficult, and it was difficult throughout the world, but we did manage – it was pretty close sometimes – but we did manage to ensure that there was… at a national level we had the PPE and then distribution was a challenge to all areas.”

Matt Hancock

Background

The Health Secretary was being questioned over allegations made by the Prime Minister’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, to the Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee.

Mr Hancock told MPs he had “no idea” why Mr Cummings had a dispute with him, but had later become aware that he had wanted him fired.

Mr Cummings criticised the Health Secretary’s performance during the pandemic, claiming he lied to colleagues and honed in on his flagship policy of aiming to carry out 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day in April 2020.

Mr Cummings branded the spring testing target “criminal, disgraceful behaviour”.

MPs were told that Mr Cummings recommended to the Prime Minister “almost every week, sometimes almost every day” that Mr Hancock should be sacked.

As it happened:

LIVE: Hancock denies Cummings’ allegations, after PM’s former aide fails to evidence them

Last updated: Thursday, 10 June, 2021, 10:34

Good morning, welcome to NationalWorld’s coverage of health secretary Matt Hancock’s appearance at the joint Health and Social Care, and Science and Technology select committee.

MPs, including former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, will begin the grilling at 9:30, in a session which is expected to go much longer than usual -- though it almost certainly won’t go on as long as the Dominic Cummings session two weeks ago.

With the serving health secretary sat in front of them as part of an inquiry titled Coronavirus: Lessons Learnt, MPs were unlikely to struggle for questions, but Cummings’ testimony will have provided an abundance of ammunition.

Expect to hear a number of Cummings’ allegations brought up this morning, perhaps most importantly the claim that Hancock knowingly lied about care home residents being protected.

In case you’re not content to just read our coverage of the session, you can tune in live on BBC Parliament, or directly on Parliament Live, using this link https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/f6726bde-a69a-40e6-bbc1-de76b90f3cca

The Cummings testimony

In case you missed it two weeks ago, here are some of the most important takeaways from Dominic Cummings’ testimony to the same inquiry.

- Cummings left No 10 believing Boris Johnson ‘unfit’ to be Prime Minister

- The Prime Minister is alleged not to have taken the threat of the virus seriously

- A second lockdown delay in the autumn led to ‘tens of thousands’ of extra deaths

- Mr Cummings continually called for Health Secretary Matt Hancock to be fired while working in No 10

- The Government’s argument that care homes were protected from the virus was ‘complete nonsense’

- His trip to Durham and subsequent ‘eyesight test’ in Barnard Castle was a ‘major disaster’

- Ministers and officials believed herd immunity was an ‘inevitability’

You can read a more in-depth recap of that session here.

High court judgement

While we’re talking about Dominic Cummings, it’s worth mentioning the high court judgement from yesterday, which found the government acted unlawfully when it gave a lucrative contract to a firm run by a friend of Cummings.

You can read our full coverage of the decision here, but the judge’s ruling is below

Mrs Justice O’Farrell said: “The fair-minded and informed observer would have appreciated that there was an urgent need for research through focus groups on effective communications in response to the Covid-19 crisis and that those research services were required immediately.

“The fair-minded and informed observer would have appreciated that it was vital that the results and conclusions from the research were reliable and that Mr Cummings was uniquely placed, given his experience and expertise, to form a rapid view on which organisation might best be able to deliver those urgent requirements.

“His professional and personal connections with Public First did not preclude him from making an impartial assessment in this regard.”

“However, the defendant’s failure to consider any other research agency, by reference to experience, expertise, availability or capacity, would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision-maker was biased.

“(The) claimant has established its case that the circumstances in which the contract was awarded to Public First gave rise to apparent bias.”

Hancock ally weighs in

Here’s what allies of the health secretary have been briefing ahead of his select committee appearance, as per Politico’s Playbook: “It’s simple — Matt will provide clear, detailed answers to the questions put to him. As he has done throughout, he will give an account of the actions taken to protect the NHS, save lives and get the country out of this unprecedented pandemic as quickly as possible.”

Cummings failed to evidence claims

The committee hearing is now underway.

Committee chair Greg Clark says Dominic Cummings was unable or unwilling to evidence his claims against Hancock, and has not given an explanation for not doing so.

Clark says he’ll now put some of the allegations to Hancock, though clarifies they are not the committee’s allegations.

Asked whether he has lied to Boris Johnson, Hancock says, “no”.

Asked whether he said “everyone who needed treatment got the treatment they required” when he’d been told otherwise by the chief medical officer.

Hancock says he did say that everybody got treatment they needed, says he is very proud of that.

He says there was no point at which he was advised that people were not getting treatment they needed

“On the contrary, one of the things we succeeded in doing is protecting the NHS, so people have always had access to treatment.”

Asked whether he briefed that issues with procurement were the fault of NHS head Simon Stevens of the Chancellor, Hancock says it is “not a fair recollection of the situation”.

Cummings claimed that an investigation by the cabinet secretary found Hancock was responsible for issues with the procurement of PPE. He also claimed the cabinet secretary said he had lost trust in the health secretary.

Hancock says he doesn’t recall this.

Clinical advise was followed around testing and care homes

Clark asks: “Did you tell the PM in March that people would be tested before they went back into care homes?”

Hancock says, “People would be tested when tests were available. Then I set about building test capacity to be able to deliver on that.

“The clinical advise set out three different reasons we followed the approach we did.”

He says the challenges weren’t just about testing capacity but also the potential for false-negatives among those not showing symptoms.

He says there was a also a concern about people held in hospital picking up the virus while they wait, then going to a care home with a negative test despite carrying the disease.

Clark asks if there is “Anything you’d like to add to Cummings’ testimony?”

Hancock says it is telling that no evidence has been provided.

He says “throughout this I have got out of bed every morning with the view and the attitude that my job is to do everything I could to save lives and get this country out of the pandemic”.

He says he has tried to do that with an approach of honesty.

Hancock knew Cummings wanted him fired

Asked why he believes Cummings chose to be so “withering” in his testimony, and whether this was a result of personal animosity between them or a genuine policy dispute, Hancock says he has “no idea”.

“I worked directly with the PM from the start of this, and of course I worked with his aides and his team as well... I have no idea.”

Clark asks whether Hancock knew Cummings wanted the PM to fire him. Hancock says yes, “because he briefed the newspapers at the time”.

He says he had the PM’s “wholesome support” throughout this period.

Cummings did claim that the PM was close to sacking Hancock, but didn’t do it, because he’d been advised that the health secretary would be the best person to sack after a Covid inquiry.

Hancock fires back

With perfect butter-wouldn’t melt delivery, Hancock fires back a sly volley at Cummings.

Asked whether the issues between him and Cummings impacted his ability to do the job, Hancock simply says that “government has operated better over the past six months”.

Jeremy Hunt is now asking a question.

He asks about the four point plan published in February last year.

The plan advised that community testing be stopped or phased down after phase one of the plan, and this is what happened, he says.

Hunt contrasts this with the approach taken by countries like South Korea, where community testing played a major role in succesfully controlling the pandemic throughout. Ge asks Hancock when he was told about the ‘South Korean strategy’.

Hancock disagrees that testing was scaled down, but Hunt pushes back and says community testing - as opposed to that in hospitals and in other specific environments - was stopped, as per a government announcement.

Community testing continued

Hancock is insistent that testing, overall, was continually scaled up.

But Hunt again pulls him back to the question. He says he is asking specifically about the advice given to him on community testing.

He says Jenny Harries (chief executive of the Health Security agency) said it was “not an appropriate intervention”.

He says Imperial College published a paper a week before lockdown modelling two approaches: suppression (lockdown) and mitigation (letting it spread while protecting the vulnerable).

He says these two options were being presented, but there was no third “South Korea option” - why was that?

Hancock claims no country in the world just uses testing without lockdown, but Hunt again pushes back, he says South Korea hasn’t had a lockdown.

Community testing continued, again

An interesting exchange here between a former and current health secretary.

Hunt’s point is that Hancock was never advised that there was an option somewhere between lockdown and letting the virus spread, which would have involved the ramping up of community testing, rather than it being slowed down.

Hancock doesn’t directly refute this (that he was never advised of that) but says there are aspects of the premise of Hunt’s question which are wrong.

He says there was not enough capacity, and that testing asymptomatic people would lead to false-negatives.

He cites SAGE advice, which later changed, that testing asymptomatic people was not effective.

The pair seem to having slightly different conversations here, but Hancock eventually concedes that no, he didn’t receive any scientific advice on the possibility of a Sout Korean style approach.

Why did it take so long to look at the Korean and Taiwanese cases?

Hunt says that SAGE did not really discuss the South Korean approach until May.

He acknowledges that we didn’t know at the time that the countries following this model would end up with lowest death rates.

But, he says, we knew they had prior experience with pandemics (MERS in South Korea and SARS in Taiwan) and being closer to China they had cases before us. Did we have a blind spot, he asks?

Hancock says possibly, but reiterates the issue with testing capacity.

He says he was calling for driving up of testing capacity in January, but PHE were unable to do so.

By mid-March, he says, not enough was being done to see capacity grow.

He says his 100k per day testing target was essential.

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