The health secretary has played down criticism from Dominic Cummings, who described the Department of Health and Social Care as a “smoking ruin” in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Matt Hancock said the UK’s rollout of COVID-19 jabs was a “huge team effort” by the health department, the vaccine taskforce and the NHS with a positive “can-do spirit”.
He was responding to criticism from Boris Johnson‘s former chief aide, who said early in the pandemic the search for a vaccine should not be led by the Department of Health.
Mr Cummings revealed to a committee of MPs that the vaccine programme was moved out of Mr Hancock’s department following the problems health officials had in buying protective equipment for NHS staff.
Mr Cummings, in his first public remarks since his dramatic departure from Number 10 last year, also claimed:
• The government’s procurement system before 2020 was an “expensive disaster zone” and when the coronavirus pandemic hit it “completely fell over”
• Parliament should hold an “urgent” inquiry into the COVID crisis and MPs should take a “very, very hard look” into “what went wrong and why in 2020”
• He made four demands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to joining his Number 10 staff, including sorting out the “disaster zone” of Whitehall
• He did not ask for a pay rise from the prime minister before leaving Downing Street and had previously taken a pay cut
• He did not watch this month’s budget, adding: “I don’t really have any idea what was in it”
Commenting on the UK’s vaccination programme, Mr Cummings told MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee that Number 10 “took it out of the Department of Health” when they decided to create a separate taskforce.
“It’s not coincidental the vaccine programme worked the way that it did,” he said.
“It’s not coincidental that to do that we had to take it out of the Department of Health, we had to have it authorised very directly by the prime minister and say ‘strip away all the normal nonsense that we can see is holding back funding in therapeutics’.”
Mr Cummings added: “In spring 2020 you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that.
“You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics, that was the kind of context for it.
“Patrick Vallance (the government’s chief scientific adviser) then came to Number 10 and says ‘this shouldn’t be run out of the Department for Health, we should create a separate taskforce’.
“We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail debacle.
“Therefore Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary, me, and some others said ‘obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the prime minister’.”
Downing Street said the PM did not share Mr Cummings’s description of the Department of Health as a “smoking ruin”.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “COVID challenged health systems around the world.
“From the outset, it was always our focus to protect the NHS and save lives.
“I would point to what was achieved last year in terms of establishing one of the biggest diagnostic networks in UK history, in terms of increasing the number of tests we are able to undertake every day.
“We have procured over nine million items of PPE, we have established the NHS Test and Trace system which has contacted millions of people and asked them to isolate.
“The Department of Health and the NHS were central to the rollout of the vaccination programme.”