UK's Health Minister defends handling of pandemic

Giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, Hancock said community testing was reduced early in the pandemic over concerns about false negatives and a lack of available tests.

Hancock's evidence follows allegations made to the committee by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's former aide Dominic Cummings including claims Hancock had repeatedly lied in government meetings on COVID-19, and called for him to be sacked. Hancock has denied the allegations made by Cummings.

In his evidence, Cummings also said decisions being made often hid behind the line the government was "following the science" to avoid total culpability.

Asked to respond to that allegation, Hancock told lawmakers the government was guided by the science but that he tries not to say "we follow the science".

He said he took full responsibility for all decisions made by him and on his behalf as health minister.

Video Transcript

- On the 16th of March, when Dr. Tedros said we needed to test, test, test, the week after we'd stopped community testing, did you challenge officials and say, why do we appear to be doing something that is completely different to what the World Health Organization is advising?

- Well, I entirely agreed with Dr. Tedros at that point. And the challenge, though, was the scale of the capacity. And we had driven-- I'd driven that as hard as I could within PHE. My approach throughout has been that we are guided by the science. I try not to say that we follow the science. You know, there are examples where ministers make decisions different to the scientific advice.

One example is that when we brought back people from Wuhan in January, I was advised that they should be asked to go home and isolate. And I said, no, they need to quarantine. I take full responsibility for the decisions that-- not only that I take but that are taken in my name as Secretary of State, across the health family, and the NHS, Public Health England, and in the Department.

And I know the prime minister feels very strongly the same. But, of course, you're guided by the science. Sometimes you have to put yourself-- you have to, you know, put yourself in jeopardy. You put yourself on the line. And in this case, I knew we needed a radical increase in the testing capacity, a radical increase. And the incremental increases would not do. And so I set the 100,000 target.

The 100,000 target mattered, because it galvanized the system, not just in the government but the whole country. We needed other-- we needed diagnostics companies to come to the table. We needed the NHS labs to step up further and expand. And it said to everybody, we are going for it big time. The prime minister was absolutely foursquare behind me and gave me his full wholehearted support in hitting the target.

Because he, like me, knew that we needed a radical increase in testing. And it is a tried and tested method. In fact, I turned-- it turned out afterwards, I was told that this is an absolutely standard business school methodology. I've never been to business school.