The health secretary, Matt Hancock, will face MPs on Thursday over allegations made by the former senior No 10 aide Dominic Cummings to a select committee that Hancock lied to colleagues and performed “disastrously” during the Covid pandemic.
In incendiary testimony on Wednesday, Cummings singled out Hancock, saying he should have been fired for “at least 15 to 20 things – including lying to everybody on multiple occasions”. He said he had suggested this to the prime minister, as did the then cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill.
In his evidence to MPs, Cummings accused Hancock of being obsessed with meeting a “stupid” target he set himself to offer 100,000 Covid tests a day and of diverting officials’ attention away from the task Cummings had set them to build a test-and-trace scheme from scratch capable of processing a million tests a day.
Recalling a major battle in Whitehall, Cummings said he had to call around and tell people “do not do what Hancock says, build the thing properly for the medium term”. Meanwhile, Hancock was telling them to “down tools on this” and “hold tests back so that I can hit my target” in order for him to crow about his success in TV interviews.
“He should have been fired for that thing alone,” said Cummings. “It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.”
Cummings also said he warned the prime minister in February and March that if Hancock was not fired, “we are going to kill people and it’s going to be a catastrophe”.
Hancock said on Wednesday night he had not seen Cummings’ seven-hour evidence to MPs as he was busy “saving lives” by dealing with the vaccination rollout. He will answer a Commons urgent question and is due to lead a government press conference, the day after the scathing attack by Cummings.
Cummings – the former de facto Downing Street chief of staff, who apologised for his own shortcomings – also claimed the prime minister was “unfit” for the job and that “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die” because of the government’s failings.
Speaking at his north London home on Wednesday evening, Hancock said: “I haven’t seen this performance today in full, and instead I’ve been dealing with getting the vaccination rollout going, especially to over-30s, and saving lives.
“I’ll be giving a statement to the House of Commons tomorrow and I’ll have more to say then.”
Earlier, a spokesperson for Hancock said: “At all times throughout this pandemic the secretary of state … 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.”
Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is likely to face questions of his own about the explosive evidence from his once-closest aide when he visits a hospital on Thursday.
As well as being branded unfit for office, it was alleged Johnson dismissed the pandemic as a “scare story” or the new “swine flu” in early 2020 as the global crisis loomed, and that he wanted to be injected with Covid-19 on television in a bid to calm the nation.
Cummings said he recommended that Johnson sack the health secretary but the Conservative party leader was warned off the idea because “he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along”.
Downing Street said on Wednesday that Hancock continued to have the confidence of the prime minister and the pair were “working closely” to save lives. The riposte is unlikely to prevent the government facing an onslaught of queries about Cummings’ evidence.
While Cummings is widely viewed as bitter about his treatment at the hands of his former boss, he is also one of the first key figures from inside No 10 at the height of the pandemic to give public evidence.
In an appearance that spurred calls for a public inquiry to be expedited, the former aide described chaotic scenes in Downing Street in the early days of the pandemic, saying it was “surreal” and comparing it to the alien invasion film Independence Day.