UK health chief defends virus record after Cummings attack


LONDON — Britain’s health minister on Thursday defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic after a former top government aide alleged the government’s botched response had led to tens of thousands of needless deaths.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock hit back after Dominic Cummings singled him out for criticism in an excoriating attack on the government.

In testimony to lawmakers on Wednesday, Cummings accused Hancock of lying to the public and said he “should have been fired” for mistakes including testing failures that saw patients with the virus discharged from hospitals to nursing homes. Thousands of people died with COVID-19 in British care homes in the first months of the outbreak.

Hancock said “the unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.”

“I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout,” he told legislators in the House of Commons. “Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked: ‘What must I do to protect life?”

Cummings, who left his job as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser in November, claimed the government’s slow and chaotic initial response, and Johnson’s failure to learn from mistakes, meant that tens of thousands of people had died unnecessarily.

He said Johnson was “unfit for the job” of prime minister.

Opposition Labour Party health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said whether or not Cummings’ allegations were true, the government had questions to answer.

“These allegations from Cummings are either true, and if so the secretary of state (Hancock) potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code … or they are false and the prime minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street,” he said. “Which is it?”

The U.K. has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe, and experienced one of the world’s deepest recessions in 2020 as three successive lockdowns hobbled the economy.

A mass vaccination campaign that started in December has brought infections and fatalities down sharply, though Britain is now reckoning with a more transmissible new strain of the virus first identified in India. It is spreading across the country and scientists expect it to become the dominant variant in Britain, but they say existing vaccines appear to work against it.

The government says it will begin an independent public inquiry into its handling of the pandemic within the next year. Opposition politicians, and families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, want it to start sooner.

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