Matt Hancock is fighting for his political life after a brutal demolition job on the health secretary by Dominic Cummings.
Amid a series of bitter barbs that sounded like a calculated political assassination, Mr Cummings accused Mr Hancock of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, while Mr Cummings was still giving evidence to MPs, Boris Johnson was forced to deny that the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, had lost faith in Mr Hancock’s honesty.
But, in his clash with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, the prime minister didn’t take the opportunity to praise Mr Hancock’s work in leading the fight against the COVID pandemic.
And later – significantly – at a briefing for political journalists, the PM’s official spokesman offered only lukewarm support to the beleaguered Mr Hancock.
Asked if Mr Johnson considered sacking Mr Hancock, the spokesman said: “At all times the PM and health secretary have been working closely to protect public health during the pandemic. That’s always been the case and continues to be.”
And asked if the prime minister still has full confidence in Mr Hancock, the spokesman would only say: “Yes. The health secretary has been working closely with the PM throughout.”
Government backbenchers and opposition MPs will now be wondering whether Mr Hancock is being set up as the fall guy in the COVID recriminations ahead of the public inquiry the prime minister has promised.
Mr Cummings seemed to confirm this view when he told the committee towards the end of his hearing: “I said sack him almost every week, sometimes almost every day.
“He was told, though, that you should not sack him, you should keep him there because he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along.”
In his marathon evidence session, Mr Cummings told MPs:
• “I think the secretary of state for health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.”
• “There’s no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect. I think the secretary of state for health is certainly one of those people.”
• “I said repeatedly to the prime minister that he should be fired, so did the cabinet secretary (Sir Mark Sedwill), so did many other senior people.”
• “I certainly think Matt Hancock used Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance as shields for himself.”
On the claim that Mr Hancock lied, Mr Cummings told the panel of MPs: “There are numerous examples.
“In the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment they required. He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak.
“We were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”
Mr Cummings also claimed Mr Hancock had blamed NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens and Chancellor Rishi Sunak for PPE problems.
He said he asked the cabinet secretary to investigate, who came back and said: “It is completely untrue, I have lost confidence in the secretary of state’s honesty in these meetings.”
Mr Cummings also claimed Mr Hancock’s public promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April was “incredibly stupid” because it was already an internal goal.
He told MPs: “In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’.
“It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.”
At a select committee hearing in March, Mr Cummings described Mr Hancock’s department as a “smoking ruin” which could not cope with the demands of the pandemic.
Asked what he meant by that remark, Mr Cummings said: “There were lots of great people in it but the procurement system which they were operating was just completely hopeless.
“There wasn’t any system set up to deal with proper emergency procurement.”
He also said that at a meeting on 27 March he was told by officials that Mr Hancock’s department had been turning down ventilators because the price had been marked up. “It completely beggars belief that sort of thing was happening,” he said.
On PPE, Mr Cummings said he was told vital masks and gloves were being sent by sea because it is “what we always do”.
He claimed he said: “Hang on, we are going to have a peak in the NHS around about mid-April, and you are shipping things from China that are going to arrive in months’ time and all the aeroplanes are not flying?
“Leave this meeting, commandeer the planes, fly them to China, drop them at the nearest airfield, pick up our stuff, fly it back.
“At this point you had Trump sending the CIA round trying to gazump everybody on PPE. The whole system was just like wading through treacle.”
He added that the cabinet secretary said the government had to “divvy up” the health secretary’s job because there were “multiple huge things here that were all being dropped”.
After the evidence session, a spokesman for Matt Hancock said: “At all times throughout this pandemic the secretary of state for health and social care and everyone in DHSC has worked incredibly hard in unprecedented circumstances to protect the NHS and save lives.
“We absolutely reject Mr Cummings’ claims about the health secretary.
“The health secretary will continue to work closely with the prime minister to deliver the vaccine rollout, tackle the risks posed by variants and support the NHS and social care sector to recover from this pandemic.”
Following Mr Cummings’ evidence, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth tabled an urgent question to Mr Hancock “on the government’s handling of COVID-19 and his department’s level of preparedness prior to the pandemic”.
Sky News understands Mr Hancock is due to hold a Downing Street press conference on Thursday about the ongoing response to the pandemic.
Earlier this week, Mr Hancock sent the Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi to answer another urgent question from Mr Ashworth. It is becoming something of a habit.
If Mr Hancock fails to turn up this time, it will be a clear sign that he is losing his battle to survive in his job.
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