Labour has accused Matt Hancock of trying to “re-write history” after he argued that there was no national shortage of personal protective equipment while defending the government response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Faced with questions from the health and social care select committee today, the Health Secretary repeatedly insisted that “there was never a point at which NHS providers couldn’t get access to PPE”, though added that “there were huge challenges”.
Labour MP Sarah Owen challenged him over the claim, reminding the Health Secretary of reports at the height of the pandemic of health care workers using bin bags and other materials as makeshift protective equipment.
“There’s no evidence that I have seen that shortage of PPE provision led to anybody dying of Covid,” Hancock said in relation to healthcare workers. “PPE provision was tight and it was difficult. And it was difficult throughout the world.
“But we did manage – and it was pretty close sometimes – but we did manage to ensure that at a national level we had the PPE and then distribution was a challenge to all areas.”
Taking to social media while the Health Secretary was giving evidence, shadow minister Rosena Allin-Khan, who is also a doctor and worked on the frontline during the pandemic, tweeted: “Matt Hancock is trying to re-write history.”
She described his claim that there was no shortage of protective equipment as “insulting to all the frontline staff who didn’t have the right masks or who were given inferior gowns”, adding: “They were put at unnecessary risk.”
Hancock also said today that all countries struggled with care homes during the crisis, highlighting a report from a facility in Spain where residents had died after being abandoned by staff and saying it was “burned across my soul”.
“This was incredibly difficult, but you’ve got to look at the whole picture, and the number one fact in this was to know how Covid got into care homes,” the Health Secretary said.
He said the government “tried to” throw a “protective ring” around care homes, but added that his powers over social care were “extremely limited”. He told MPs, for example, that the department did not have a list of care homes in England.
Ahead of the committee meeting today, care home operators reported that they had warned the Department of Health and Social Care repeatedly about the risk of not testing people discharged from hospitals into care homes in March last year.
Care England, which represents the largest private chains where thousands of people died in the first months of the crisis, said that it raised “the lack of testing in hospitals and in the care sector” several times in correspondence.
The UK had capacity for 10,000 daily tests at the start of April last year. Between March 17th and April 15th, around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care home facilities according to the National Audit Office.
Labour MP Barbara Keeley told the Health Secretary this morning that the NHS is still using ‘do not resuscitate’ orders for the mentally ill with Covid, and is still not accepting some care home residents into hospitals.
She highlighted the experience of one of her constituents, who was told that she would not be accepted from a care home to hospital to treat her Covid, and argued that this shows a mindset of denying support to vulnerable patients.
Hancock agreed that this was “completely unacceptable” and said it has never been policy. The Health Secretary said DNR orders “must be made on an individual basis” and described their use without consent as “inexcusable”.
The minister defended the delay in introducing a mandatory requirement for face coverings, telling MPs there was “rigorous international debate on use of masks” and a practical concern over causing a shortage of PPE.
He also defended the delay in introducing restrictions on international travel in the pandemic, arguing: “The only way the world could have stopped this virus getting out of China is if China itself had stopped people leaving China.”
The session today followed evidence given by Dominic Cummings last month, during which the former advisor to Boris Johnson alleged that Hancock had used the ‘following the science’ line to blame scientists when things went wrong.
“My approach throughout has been that we are guided by the science, I try not to say that we follow the science,” Hancock said today. “When it comes to the decisions around lockdown we did accept and implement the scientific advice.”
Cummings also described the 100,000 tests per day target set by Hancock early during the crisis as “criminal” during his evidence session last month. Hancock defended the target this morning, saying that the UK needed a “radical increase”.
“I set it on the advice of my team and I asked them what was the best they could do. They said just over 100,000 for the end of the month,” Hancock said today. “The 100,000 target mattered because it galvanised the systems.”
Cummings said last month that he had repeatedly urged Johnson to sack Hancock. The former adviser argued that the Health Secretary should have been fired for “at least 15 to 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions”.
Asked this morning whether he was aware that Cummings had urged the PM to sack him, Hancock said: “Yes, because he briefed the newspapers at the time. Well, somebody briefed the newspapers. I now have a better idea of who that person is.”
On the allegation that he lied about people getting the treatment they required from the NHS over the summer last year, Hancock said: “There was no point at which I was advised that people were not getting the treatment they needed.”
Cummings had said that Hancock had been briefed by government advisers to say the situation was to the contrary. The Health Secretary denied ever lying to the Prime Minister, as alleged by Cummings.
On Cummings’ testimony, the Health Secretary told the committee today: “I’m not responsible for anybody else’s testimony but I am really pleased to have the chance to come here, to be able to tell you the truth.”