UK's health minister denies claim he lied during pandemic

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Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock waves at members of the media as he walks to go into 10 Downing Street, in London, Monday, June 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON – British Health Secretary Matt Hancock has defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic following a series of damaging allegations from Prime Minister Boris Johnson's former top adviser.

Facing questioning from lawmakers, Hancock said Thursday that he had “no idea” why Dominic Cummings had a dispute with him and that he'd become aware that Cummings had wanted him fired.

“I'm not responsible for anybody else's testimony, but I'm really pleased to have the chance to come here to be able to tell you the truth,” Hancock said.

Two weeks ago, Cummings told lawmakers investigating the virus outbreak in the U.K. that Hancock “should have been fired” for a series of lies and for a litany of errors during the pandemic. Among the charges, Cummings said Hancock had claimed that during the early stages of the pandemic that people discharged from hospitals were being tested for the virus before going back to their nursing homes.

Cummings had told lawmakers he would send them evidence to back up his claims. Hancock said it was “telling” that Cummings had not produced anything yet.

Hancock denied that he had said anything to the prime minister that he knew to be untrue and added that Johnson's Conservative government was functioning better as a result of Cummings' departure at the end of last year.

“I think the best thing to say about this, and this will be corroborated by lots of people in government, the best thing to say, is that government has operated better in the past six months," Hancock said.

In his testimony, Cummings also lashed out at Johnson, saying he was “unfit” for the job of prime minister and that tens of thousands of people had died needlessly during the pandemic primarily because of delays in ordering a succession of lockdowns.

The U.K. has recorded nearly 128,000 coronavirus-related deaths, more than any other nation in Europe. After a devastating winter surge of infections, deaths have fallen sharply following a strict months-long lockdown and the rapid rollout of vaccines.

The improved backdrop has allowed lockdown restrictions to be eased in the U.K. over the past couple of months. However, there are concerns that the next planned easing on June 21, where social distancing restrictions were to be lifted, may have to be delayed because of a recent spike in new infections largely due to the delta variant that was first identified in India.

The U.K. recorded 7,393 new infections Thursday, just down from the previous day's more than three-month high. Though the number of people being hospitalized with the virus rose by 153 to 1,048, it's still way down from nearly 40,000 at the peak of the second surge in January.

The hope is that the rapid rollout of vaccines will dramatically break the link between new infections, hospitalizations and deaths. So far, the evidence suggests that a large proportion of the people being infected are in younger age groups, many of whom have yet to receive a first dose.

Johnson will decide Monday whether the next easing can take place.

Hancock also said he had been made aware in late-January 2020 that 820,000 people in the U.K. could die from COVID-19 in a worst-case scenario, but said ordering a lockdown a week or two before one was actually announced on March 23, 2020, would have gone against scientific advice.

“The clear advice at the time was that there’s only a limited period that people would put up with it, would put up with lockdown," he said. “Now that proved actually to be wrong.”

Hancock's claim that an earlier lockdown would have gone against the scientific consensus was dismissed by a leading British scientist.

“It is an old claim that has been comprehensively debunked,” said Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.


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