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Whenever journalists hear a politician sidestep a direct question from MPs, our antennae twitch. When that politician repeatedly body swerves the same question from reporters, we smell a rat. Yet time and again, ministers seem unaware of the old newsroom motto: you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.
Despite Matt Hancock breezing confidently through Commons questions on Thursday morning, largely due to strong support from Tory backbenchers, there was one answer that just didn’t feel right. Asked about the claim that he told Dominic Cummings and others that people would be tested before being transferred into care homes, Hancock didn’t deny it. “So many of the allegations yesterday were unsubstantiated,” was all he could muster.
At his latest Downing Street press conference, the health secretary looked much more uncomfortable as he was asked multiple times about the issue. ”My recollection of events,” he said, “is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.” The word “recollection” is often a red flag, but the phrase “committed” felt rather elastic too.
Now, it’s worth recalling Cummings’ exact charge here. “Hancock told us in the cabinet room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes. What the hell happened?” he said. It was only in April that No.10 realised that “many, many people who should have been tested were not tested, and then went to care homes and then infected people, and then it’s spread like wildfire inside the care homes”.
Firstly, it’s perfectly possible that Hancock made a promise but, crucially, without a timeframe. With the lack of testing capacity at the time, it would be frankly ludicrous to make a commitment that he could test all hospital discharges within days or weeks. However, one can imagine him saying, ‘I’m going to make it my mission to get this testing sorted so people are tested before going into homes’. That’s not the same as saying he would stop all discharges which lacked testing, which was Cummings’ implication.
Second, UK Health Security Agency boss Jenny Harries suggested claims of seeding the virus from hospitals into care homes was overstated. These made up a “very, very tiny proportion” of cases, she said. Fortuitously for Hancock, a new Public Health England report out today confirmed that just 1.6% of outbreaks were seeded from hospital, causing 286 deaths. That’s not the “many, many people” of Cummings’ hyperbole. Care homes did suffer cruelly, but it seems the seeding came from care staff not hospitals.
Still, Hancock would do well to simply disown one other highly dubious claim he made last year: “Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.” PHE’s official advice as late as February 28 stated: “there is no need to do anything differently in any care setting at present”. It wasn’t until April 15 that was changed to requiring all hospital discharges to be tested.
What was most curious about Cummings’ onslaught on Hancock, however, was his admission that he actively tried to stop Hancock from hitting his target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. The chief adviser said he was “in No.10 calling round, frantically saying, ‘Do not do what Hancock says’.” Cummings’ desire to “build things properly for the medium term” (aka doing things his way, not Hancock’s) seemed to fuel the lack of urgency he himself had criticised over care homes testing.
What was also notable on Thursday was the way Hancock at least opened himself up to hours of scrutiny, in parliament and live on TV. Contrast that to Boris Johnson’s five-minute “clip”, a “hi, bye!” media strategy he uses when on a photocall (usually in a key seat) to avoid a proper interview. Schools, hospitals, laboratories, all providing visual wallpaper for the evening news, and often nothing more.
When Johnson was asked about key Cummings allegations, he sounded shiftier than Hancock. Asked about the damning claim that tens of thousands of people died who need not have died because of his action or inaction, the PM replied: “No, I don’t think so.” He doesn’t think so? Asked if he’d said he was prepared to let “the bodies pile high”, he just said: “I’ve already made my position very clear on that point.”
With new figures confirming the Indian variant makes upto 75% of new Covid cases and is becoming the dominant strain across the country, Johnson’s judgment is once again facing a huge test. Even though a rise in cases was expected after the May 17 relaxation or rules, and in Bolton the variant cases are flattening, the “spillover” into other areas is worrying.
Given the race between the vaccine and the virus, why not just extend the unlockdown finishing line by a couple more weeks to give the jabs more of a chance? After all, June 21 was an arbitrary date plucked out of the air, why blow it all for the sake of waiting a fortnight to allow more data collection and more jabs in arms? Especially when over-18s could perhaps all get a first dose by the end of June.
Well, today for the first time there was a hint from the PM he could delay, saying “we may need to wait”. In case we missed the new mood, he added: ”Our job now to deliver the roadmap - if we possibly can”. The ‘probable’ June 21 final unlock of a few days ago is now just a ‘possible’. If Dominic Cummings has done nothing else, maybe he’s forced a pause on the PM that could benefit us all.