Behind the scenes

Matt Hancock was called to Boris Johnson’s office to explain care home ‘negligence’

Dominic Cummings has ‘documentary evidence’ that PM feared he was misled over care home testing

Boris Johnson feared he had been “misled” by Matt Hancock over the testing of hospital patients for Covid-19 before they were discharged into care homes, summoning him to a meeting last May to explain his “negligence”, it has emerged.

The health secretary was called to the prime minister’s office on 4 May 2020 to explain whether he had “misled” the prime minister, former chief adviser Dominic Cummings and the then cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill on testing patients before they were discharged into care homes, as well as over further testing of residents and staff, ITV political editor Robert Peston reports.

Cummings is reported to have “documentary evidence” of the meeting, Peston adds, in which the term “negligence” is used to describe the release of Covid patients into care homes.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has denied Peston’s reporting, with a source close to the health secretary telling ITV: “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”.

The claim has “lobbed a fresh grenade into the mix”, Politico’s London Playbook says, as Hancock struggles with the fallout from Cummings’s explosive testimony to the Commons health select committee on Wednesday.

In the marathon session Cummings told the committee: "We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to care homes. We only subsequently found out that that hadn't happened.

"The government rhetoric was we put a shield around care homes – it was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes."

The health secretary has denied the claims, stating that he was clear it would take time to build testing capacity and that he had promised only that all elderly and vulnerable patients would be tested for Covid when there was adequate testing capacity, rather than with immediate effect.

“My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it,” he told a Downing Street press conference yesterday. “I then went away and built the testing capacity… and then delivered on the commitment that I made.”

Despite initially declining to give a direct response when asked by journalists last night if Hancock was the right person for the role, Johnson issued a statement this morning expressing “full confidence” in the health secretary. “The PM has full confidence in the health secretary and will continue working with him to protect public health and save lives,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

The health secretary could be insulated from further blows to his reputation by a report released by Public Health England that suggests only a small proportion of Covid outbreaks were “seeded” from hospitals into care homes.

The report, commissioned by DHSC, found that from 30 January to 12 October last year, 43,398 residents tested positive for Covid. More than 80% of these came from “outbreaks” and the report found there were 5,882 separate outbreaks. Around 1.6% (97) of outbreaks were identified as stemming from hospital discharges.

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