In Depth

Are government rifts beginning to show over coronavirus?

NHS and senior cabinet ministers deny reports of infighting at the top

Allegations of splits within the government and between ministers and health bosses over the response to the coronavirus outbreak have triggered a flurry of denials.

Reports of disagreements between the Department of Health and both NHS England and Public Health England over the rolling out of Covid-19 tests have been dismissed by an NHS spokesperson as “factually wrong”.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has rubbished claims that he and Chancellor Rishi Sunak had clashed over when to end the UK lockdown.

What are the alleged disagreements?

The Sunday Times reportss that disagreements over how to tackle the outbreak have spiralled since Boris Johnson tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus ten days ago, with the newspaper claiming that “while the prime minister is upstairs with a fever, ministers, civil servants and the NHS are playing the blame game”.

According to political editor Tim Shipman, the “most serious rift” is between the health establishment and the politicians. 

Shipman writes that NHS England has been blamed for “failing to get a grip” on the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line healthcare workers, and for “refusing to let private labs take on testing work”, although this decision was reversed last week

NHS England has also reportedly been accused of giving “incorrect and overly optimistic information” to ministers.

Meanwhile, distrust over the civil service’s capacity to respond quickly to the crisis has seen the health department hiring about 75 project management staff from the “big five” public affairs firms, including Deloitte.

And the perceived slowness of the response by both the civil service and the NHS is putting pressure on ministers, Whitehall insiders claim. “If officials are failing, it is the job of ministers to get a grip and squeeze the system so it works,” a source told Shipman.

Yet Health Secretary Hancock - who like Johnson has tested positive for Covid-19 - is reportedly failing to win fans at Downing Street, after emerging from self-isolation to outline a five-point plan to raise the number of tests to 100,000 a day but failing to credit “the officials who worked flat out on the plan in his absence”.

Apparently revealing a mocking nickname for the health boss, a No. 10 insider said: “There is not much love for Matt Handjob here.” 

Hancock is also the subject of a report by The Mail on Sunday, which claims that he has been at loggerheads with Chancellor Sunak over the UK lockdown. 

The chancellor has allegedly made a number of “robust” interventions, warning that “unless a path is mapped now for a swift return to normal economic activity, it could cause lasting damage to the country”.

Sunak and other government critics of Hancock say that the health secretary’s “careerist” fear of being blamed for a collapse in the NHS is “blinding him to the dangers of a protracted lockdown”, the newspaper claims. 

Hancock is also reported to have clashed repeatedly with Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove.

The Sunday Times’ Shipman reports that Gove is said to have “humiliated” Hancock in a cabinet committee discussion on ventilators. “Michael knew the detail and Matt didn’t,” a source said.

Adding another layer to the web of alleged disagreements, Gove is alleged to have clashed with Sunak too. 

This clash occurred after Gove’s Cabinet Office officials sent the Treasury a plan for outsourcing groups to set up a website where any company furloughing staff could advertise the affected workers’ skills to other firms that might take them on, according to Shipman.

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What have ministers and the NHS said?

An NHS England spokesperson told The Guardian that the claims about the health service response were “factually wrong”.

NHS England “has itself rapidly engaged with the private sector in areas for which it has responsibility, as evidenced by a deal to redeploy almost all independent hospitals across England to help with the expected surge of coronavirus patients”, said the spokesperson.

“This means another 20,000 staff, 8,000 more beds and an extra 1,000 ventilators can all be used in this battle.”

NHS hospital labs had “done the testing they had been asked to do, focused on patients and staff, and that mass testing would always have needed outside help”, the spokesperson added.

Hancock has also moved to play down the reports of his alleged clashes with Sunak.

Asked on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday whether he had fallen out with the new chancellor, Hancock said: “No, we’re working very closely together and what matters is that we can get out of this as fast as possible.

“I think that Rishi is doing an absolutely brilliant job as chancellor, the measures that he’s put in place to support businesses, to support people, self-employed people and employed people are absolutely phenomenal, and in fact he has been lauded around the world for the first-class economic response we have got in this country.”

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