Addressing this allegation, Mr Hancock told MPs: “We set out a policy that people would be tested when tests were available – and then I set about building the testing capacity to be able to deliver on that.”
The health secretary added that the government followed the “clinical advice” at all times, which included three key points:
The NHS at the time didn’t have the testing capacity
The advice at the time that tests on asymptomatic people could return a false negative
Because tests were taking four days to turn around, patients could go back into care homes and then later test positive
He added that the “strongest route” of the virus into care homes was through community transmission, noting estimates suggest 1.6% of the transmission into care homes came from hospital discharges.
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“The challenge was not just that we didn’t have the testing capacity, but also that the clinical advice was that a test on somebody who didn’t have any symptoms could easily return a false negative and therefore give false assurance that that person didn’t have the disease,” Mr Hancock said.
“Right from the start we knew that people living in care homes were amongst the most vulnerable and we did all that we could to support them.”
The health secretary also told MPs “it was telling” that Mr Cummings had not yet submitted any evidence to the committee to support his allegations.
Earlier in the evidence session, Conservative chairman of the Science and Technology Committee Greg Clark said the committee had not received any written evidence from Mr Cummings to back up his claims or any explanation as to why it had not been provided.
Striking back at Mr Cummings, Mr Hancock said the Government “has operated better in the past six months” since the PM’s former senior aide left his position in Downing Street.
Another claim rejected by the health secretary is that there was a national personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage during the pandemic.
He told the committee that while there were, at times, “local pressures” with getting PPE, there was “never a national shortage” – despite the “huge demand”.
Mr Hancock also disputed that there was ever a shortage of testing. He told MPs: “Testing was at no point scaled down, on the contrary, we were driving up testing capacity all the way through.”
And the health secretary also made clear in his evidence that he takes “full responsibility” for the decisions taken over the last fifteen months, but that he was “guided by the science”.
“I take full responsibility for the decision not only that I take, but that are taken in my name as secretary of state, across the health family and the NHS, Public Health England, in the department.
“And I know the prime minister feels very strongly the same. But of course you are guided by the science,” he said.
Telling MPs he had tried to act with “honesty and integrity” throughout dealing with the pandemic, Mr Hancock added: “Throughout this I have got out of bed every morning with the view and the attitude that my job is to do everything I could to save lives and get this country out of the pandemic.”
In his evidence session in May, Mr Cummings labelled Mr Hancock’s target to reach 100,000 tests a day by the end of April 2020 “incredibly stupid”, saying it took away the government’s focus.
But hitting back at this accusation, the health secretary told the committee the prime minister had always been behind the target.
“The purpose of the target was to galvanise the system – it worked,” he said.
“The prime minister was absolutely four-square behind me and gave me his full, whole-hearted support in hitting this target because he, like me, knew we needed a radical increase in testing.”