Ashworth demands “clear answers” from Hancock over Cummings evidence

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Challenging Matt Hancock over the allegations made against the Health Secretary during an evidence session on Wednesday, Jonathan Ashworth argued that bereaved families and the wider public “deserve clear answers”.

Addressing parliament this morning, following Hancock’s response to an urgent question relating to the accusations from the former Downing Street adviser, Ashworth noted that Hancock “did not respond to the specific allegations”.

The Shadow Health Secretary described the evidence given by Cummings, which included claims that Hancock repeatedly misled colleagues and the public and that the Prime Minister is “unfit” for office, as “grave and serious”.

He highlighted claims that Hancock lied over “preparedness and lack of protection for people in care homes” and asked: “Is he ashamed that he promised a protective shield around care homes and over 30,000 care home residents have died?”

He also reminded MPs that 25,000 elderly people were discharged from hospitals into care homes last spring, without being given a test, and asked whether the Health Secretary had lied over whether the residents had been tested in April.

Ashworth pointed out claims made by Hancock during the height of the crisis that “little was known about asymptomatic transmission”, but highlighted that SAGE, academic papers and the chief medical officer had all flagged evidence on several occasions between January and March last year. He added that Hancock should consequently have taken a “precautionary approach” to care homes.

“He told the House that what is important is that infection control procedures are in place in that care home. But care homes, like the NHS, struggled with the most desperate of personal protective equipment shortages,” Ashworth said.

“He was telling us in March from this despatch box that supplies were extensive but apparently in private in Downing Street was blaming Simon Stevens for lack of PPE.

“But the reality is that his department was responsible for PPE and the National Audit Office said the supplies were inadequate. 850 healthcare workers died. How many could have been saved had they had PPE?”

“Now, these allegations are either true – and if so the Secretary of State potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code and the Nolan principles,” the Shadow Health Secretary told MPs this morning.

“Or they are false, and the Prime Minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street. Which is it? Families who have lost loved ones deserve full answers from him today.”

Hancock agreed that the evidence given by Cummings was “serious” but described the claims as “unsubstantiated” and said accusations of dishonesty were “not true”, adding: “I’ve been straight with people, in public and in private, throughout.”

He insisted that he has been transparent throughout the crisis, saying that he had attended parliament 60 times since January last year, had answered 2,667 contributions from MPs and that he and Johnson had hosted 84 press conferences.

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

Cummings gave evidence to the science and health select committees on Wednesday for seven hours, telling MPs that he told Johnson that Hancock should have been sacked “almost every day” for alleged “criminal” behaviour.

The former political adviser told the committees that the Health Secretary lied on a number of occasions. He alleged Hancock blamed NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens and Rishi Sunak for having “blocked approvals” for PPE in the crisis.

Cummings said he told Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill to investigate this particular claim and that Sedwill reported that it was “completely untrue”, meaning he had “lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings”.

The Health Secretary should have been fired for “at least 15 to 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions”, the committees heard. Cummings said he, Sedwill and other senior officials had urged Johnson to do so.

The former political adviser alleged that the Prime Minister had been advised not to sack the Health Secretary “because he’s the person you fire when the [public] inquiry comes along”.

He argued that there is “no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country expects” and told the committee members this afternoon that Hancock was “one of those people”.

Cummings also said Hancock lied when he claimed that “everyone who needed treatment got the treatment they required” over the summer last year.

“He knew that was a lie because he’d been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved. Many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”

Keir Starmer challenged Johnson over the evidence, which was still being given to the committee at the time, during PMQs, including the claim that Johnson argued “Covid is only killing 80-year-olds” when delaying lockdown.

Asked whether the Cabinet Secretary and Cummings had told the Prime Minister to sack Hancock, Johnson said it was untrue and he had not seen any evidence of that. His spokesperson later said Johnson has “full confidence” in Hancock.

Cummings also said Johnson was “unfit” for office because he refused to order a lockdown. He alleged that Johnson did say he would rather let the “bodies pile high” than order a third lockdown last year. Johnson has denied saying this.

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