Robert Peston

Was Matt Hancock guilty of ‘negligence’?

Was Matt Hancock guilty of 'negligence'?
Matt Hancock (Photo: Getty)
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The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has insisted that he promised the Prime Minister and his former chief aide Dominic Cummings only that all elderly and vulnerable patients would be tested for Covid on discharge to a care home when there was adequate testing capacity, and not with immediate effect.

This is Hancock’s defence against Cummings’s charge that the Health Secretary lied to him and the PM when promising to test patients prior to them going to a care home.

But I understand Cummings has documentary evidence that as late as May last year he and the PM feared they had been misled by Hancock about how he would protect the elderly in care homes, and that he was guilty of ‘negligence’.

Cummings says Hancock made an unconditional promise not to send potentially infected patients into care homes.

The problem for Hancock is – I understand – that Dominic Cummings has documents showing Matt Hancock was summoned by the Prime Minister’s office to 10 Downing Street on 3 May, for a meeting on 4 May, to explain whether he had misled Cummings, the PM and the then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill on testing patients before discharging them into care homes and also about further testing of residents and staff in care homes.

A source says there was a fear in Downing Street that Mr Hancock’s ‘negligence’ had ‘killed people in care homes’ (a charge which the Department of Health has denied). The term ‘negligence’ is used in the documents. Downing Street officials asked for information from the Department of Health to understand what had gone wrong.

Cummings was and is convinced Hancock misled him and the PM about how he was planning to keep infected patients out of care homes – where there have been more than 40,000 deaths involving Covid-19, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Hancock, however, said at a press conference yesterday that it was only possible to test people leaving hospital when he had hit his target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April.

Cummings says the precise opposite is true, that Hancock’s obsession with hitting the testing target distracted from the imperative of protecting the elderly and vulnerable in care homes.

He also argues that Hancock’s fixation on that target was counter-productive to expanding testing capacity in a more sustainable way.

Cummings told MPs yesterday that an SAS commanding officer had been drafted in to expand testing capacity, but that Hancock’s 100,000 target undermined his work.

I asked the Department of Health for a comment on the Downing Street care homes meeting. I have now had this non-committal response from a source close to the Health Secretary. It does not add to our sum of knowledge:

‘We do not recognise this at all. The Health Secretary has had many meetings with the PM across a range of issues throughout the pandemic as you would expect.’

Hancock has said all these issues will eventually be examined by the promised public inquiry.