UK health minister defends COVID-19 record after allegations by former PM aide

·2-min read

By Alistair Smout and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) -British health minister Matt Hancock rejected allegations by a former top aide of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying there was never a national shortage of protective equipment and the government followed clinical guidance on care homes.

Johnson's former aide Dominic Cummings last month said Hancock had repeatedly lied in government meetings on COVID-19, and called for him to be sacked.

Hancock denied the allegations made by Cummings and noted he had not provided evidence for his claims.

"What I did and what my team did was what we believed to be the best thing we could on the information that we had to protect lives," Hancock told a parliamentary select committee hearing on Thursday, adding he had never told Johnson anything he knew to be untrue.

"Despite my deep regret at the deaths that have occurred, I know that I did that with the right motive of being straight with people throughout."

Over 127,000 people have died in Britain within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test, and Cummings said the government's inept handling of the pandemic led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Cummings in particular criticised Hancock's approach to care homes and personal protective equipment (PPE), saying Hancock had said people would be tested before being discharged into care homes, which then didn't happen.

Reuters has reported how Britain continued to discharge infected elderly hospital patients into care homes during the first wave of infections.

On Thursday, Hancock said the policy was that people would be tested when tests were available, but said that though he tried to put a protective ring around care homes, it was very hard.

"On care home policy throughout we followed the clinical advice," he said. "Each and every death in a care home weighs heavily on me"

He also defended his record on procuring supplies of PPE.

"Despite local challenges, and I don't deny at all there were challenges in individual areas, there was never a national shortage of PPE," Hancock said.

Hancock also rebutted Cummings' claim that he had lied about whether people were receiving the treatment they required.

"I've taken the trouble to check with the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, there was no point at which I was advised that people were not getting the treatment they needed," he said.

Hancock said scientists, including at the World Health Organization (WHO), had underestimated the extent of asymptomatic transmission. Reuters has reported on the slow response of advisers to the threat of COVID-19.

"I bitterly regret that I didn't overrule that scientific advice at the start and say we should proceed on the basis that there is asymptomatic transmission, until we know that there isn't, rather than the other way around," he said.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Sarah Young. Editing by Andrew MacAskill and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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