Exclusive: Matt Hancock kept Boris Johnson in dark over Covid vaccines success

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Michael Gove and Matt Hancock during the UEFA Euro 2020 match between England and Scotland at Wembley on Friday - Eamonn McCormack/UEFA via Getty Images
Michael Gove and Matt Hancock during the UEFA Euro 2020 match between England and Scotland at Wembley on Friday - Eamonn McCormack/UEFA via Getty Images

Matt Hancock failed to tell Boris Johnson about a major Public Health England (PHE) study showing the effectiveness of vaccines against the Indian or delta variant during a key meeting to decide whether to extend Covid restrictions, The Telegraph can disclose.

The Telegraph understands that the Health Secretary had known about the PHE data three days before the "quad" of four senior ministers, led by the Prime Minister, met last Sunday to decide whether to postpone the planned June 21 reopening until July 19.

However, multiple sources familiar with the meeting said it was not raised by Mr Hancock or discussed at all during the course of the talks.

The data was also not included in briefing papers given to Mr Johnson, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, in advance of the meeting.

The bombshell disclosure raises the possibility that the quad could have opted to press ahead with lifting the restrictions on Monday if they had been aware of the study, which showed that both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines were more effective at preventing hospitalisation with the variant than they were against previous strains.

It comes after it emerged last week that Mr Johnson had called Mr Hancock "hopeless" over his handling of the pandemic last year.

On Saturday night, senior Tories asked whether the Health Secretary had "bounced" the Prime Minister into extending the current measures.

The disclosure will fuel calls for the measures to be lifted on July 5 – the halfway point before July 19 at which Mr Johnson said the Government could decide to lift them early.

One Cabinet minister insisted there must now be a "political decision" to allow businesses to operate fully again due to concerns about severe harm being done to the economy with relatively "little benefit".

On Saturday night Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, said: "Either Matt Hancock thought this data was insignificant or he thought it should be withheld from the Prime Minister and other key ministers.

"Either way, the mind boggles at what conversation must now be necessary with the Prime Minister, and I feel confident it will be a matter of interest to my colleagues on the relevant select committees. If Matt Hancock was deliberately withholding relevant information, what was he trying to gain? Was the Prime Minister bounced?"

A Department of Health spokesman denied that Mr Hancock "bounced" the Prime Minister.

Senior ministers were said to be furious with how the decision-making process was handled. Sources close to members of the "quad" also said they were not provided with the usual explanations that accompany modelling by Sage scientists presented at the meeting, which showed that a June 21 reopening would lead to a large resurgence in hospital admissions.

A source close to the "quad" said: "They were presented with the [Sage] data without the assumptions that it was based on." Members of the quad were said to be "very annoyed". The claim was denied by other Government sources.

The Telegraph understands that Mr Hancock was briefed on the overall findings of the data on Thursday June 10, before PHE went on to send its written analysis to the Health Secretary on Saturday June 12.

On the Saturday, Mr Johnson hosted a brief virtual meeting of the quad from the G7 summit on Cornwall, ahead of the longer meeting following his return to Downing Street the next day.

However, the first notification that Number 10 received of the results was in an email to aides at around 3pm on Sunday June 13, shortly before the meeting that evening at which ministers decided to extend the restrictions.

Sources with the talks said an email sent so close to the meeting did not amount to a meaningful attempt to inform Mr Johnson of the data.

Mr Baker added: "To send an email so late in the day is an act of opposition. It's the sort of thing we do to Labour MPs before appearing in their constituencies to campaign. It's not what a Health Secretary should do to a Prime Minister."

A Government source insisted that "equivalent data" to the PHE study was shown to the quad. The "equivalent" data was said to have been drawn up by Sage's Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) and to have included similar figures to the PHE's findings on the efficacy of the vaccines.

The source said: "When the decision was made to delay, ministers knew that the vaccines work. That is why we are buying more time to get more jabs in arms."

But the PHE data, which was only made public on Monday evening after Mr Johnson announced the delay, was based on an analysis of 14,019 cases of the delta variant as recent as June 4, looking at emergency hospital admissions in England.

It was described by PHE as "hugely important findings" which "confirm that the vaccines offer significant protection against hospitalisation from the delta variant".

Real world data showed that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was 94 per cent effective against hospital admission from the variant after one dose, rising to 96 per cent after two jabs. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was found to be 71 per cent effective against hospital admission after one dose, rising to 92 per cent after two jabs.

The data showed that both vaccines are more effective at preventing hospitalisation against the variant than they had been against previous types.

Meanwhile, separate analysis by The Telegraph shows that hospital admissions in regions with the highest outbreaks of the delta variant are rising at a third of the pace of last September, while a third of hospitals in England have no Covid patients at all.

Mr Hancock also told MPs this week that people who catch the virus are now spending 20 per cent less time in hospital beds, with the average stay being cut from 10 to eight days.

A Government source said: "The reason we need more time is because of the increased transmissibility of the delta variant, not because of vaccine escape."

A Department of Health spokesman said any suggestion that Mr Hancock "bounced" Mr Johnson was "categorically untrue". He added: "Information which was provided by PHE was shared across Government before the meeting. Analysis and work on the scientific paper continued over the weekend before it was published as soon as it was ready on Monday."

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