Matt Hancock condemned “unsubstantiated” attacks from Dominic Cummings as he fought to save his career over claims he lied to the Prime Minister about coronavirus plans.
The Health Secretary faced a day of questions from MPs and the media over whether he falsely told Boris Johnson that patients would be tested before they were discharged from hospitals to care homes at the start of the pandemic.
In the Commons, Mr Hancock said the allegations levelled against him by Mr Cummings were “not true” and he later told a Downing Street press conference that the commitment he had given was to build the capacity to be able to test patients before discharge.
“I committed to getting the policy in place, but it took time to build the testing,” he said.
“We didn’t start with a big testing system in the UK and then we built that testing system.”
When pressed if he had told the Prime Minister and Mr Cummings in March 2020 that patients being discharged 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 homes when we could do it.”
Mr Cummings, who was Mr Johnson’s right-hand man in No 10, accused Mr Hancock of repeatedly lying, being disastrously incompetent and claimed he should have been fired on multiple occasions during the course of the pandemic.
Forced to go to the House of Commons to respond to the claims, Mr Hancock said: “These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.
“I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout.”
The Prime Minister, who was described as unfit for office by his former aide, said “some of the commentary I have heard doesn’t bear any relation to reality”.
Mr Johnson denied Mr Cummings’ central charge that Government failings had resulted in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Asked whether those deaths were due to his “action or inaction”, Mr Johnson said: “No, I don’t think so.
“Of course this has been an incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we have taken lightly.”
He insisted that “at every stage we have been governed by a determination to protect life” but acknowledged the situation in care homes had been “tragic”.
Apart from his damning assessment of Mr Johnson, Mr Cummings saved his fiercest criticism for Mr Hancock over failings around care homes policy, personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement and his public pledge on a testing target which caused disruption in Whitehall.
During his seven-hour evidence session on Wednesday, Mr Cummings told MPs that the Prime Minister had been told “categorically in March that people will be tested before they went back to care homes” from hospital by Mr Hancock – something which did not happen.
It was “complete nonsense” to claim the Government had put a shield around care homes, Mr Cummings claimed.
He said Mr Hancock should have been sacked on 15 to 20 occasions and Whitehall’s top mandarin at the time, Sir Mark Sedwill, had “lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty”.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the allegations made by Mr Cummings are either true – in which case Mr Hancock “potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code” and the principles of standards in public life – or they are false “and the Prime Minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street”.
Mr Cummings accused the Health Secretary of making a “stupid” public pledge to increase testing to 100,000 by the end of April 2020, claiming he then interfered with the building of the Test and Trace system to maximise his chances of hitting his target.
“It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm,” Mr Cummings claimed.
But in the Commons, Mr Hancock defended his approach and said: “Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in Government.”
In his press conference he said the 100,000 target was important because it “really accelerated the availability of testing” to help address the care home issue.
Michael Gove defended his department, the Cabinet Office, after it too was savaged as “terrifyingly shit” by Mr Cummings.
Pressed about the level of preparedness in Government for the Covid-19 outbreak in February and March 2020, Mr Gove told MPs: “It was the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, a novel virus, that meant we had to adjust to the situation and while of course there are important lessons to be learned, and of course there were mistakes that we made, I would say two things.
“Other western democracies were also faced with these challenges, also were learning in real time about how to deal with them and have also committed, as we have, to different types of public inquiry so appropriate lessons can be learned.”
As officials and ministers across Whitehall responded to Mr Cummings’ barrage of criticism, Downing Street was forced to deny his claims about Mr Johnson’s fiancee.
Asked whether Carrie Symonds had tried to fill jobs in Downing Street with her friends, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “All appointments made in No 10 are done in the normal way, that’s always been the case.”
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice campaign group said: “This political pantomime continues to show a level of disrespect to our lost loved ones and brings us no closer to the answers we need for lives to be saved.
“If the Government has time to play a leading role in this sideshow they have the time to get on with an inquiry.”