Prime minister Boris Johnson referred to the inability of his health secretary, Matt Hancock, to increase coronavirus testing capacity at the start of the pandemic as “totally fucking hopeless”, according to private messages disclosed by his former top adviser.
Dominic Cummings released the damaging WhatsApp messages on his blog. They show that Johnson considered sacking Hancock in a message the prime minister sent his former aide on April 27 2020, revealing that he thought the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) was “a disaster”.
Johnson added in the message: “I can’t think of anything except taking Hancock off and putting [Michael] Gove on.”
Cummings revealed in parliamentary testimony last month that he had repeatedly demanded Hancock’s sacking for various failings and “lies” at the start of the pandemic.
Downing Street then told reporters that “the prime minister has full confidence in the health secretary”. Hancock subsequently denied ever telling any untruths to Johnson.
The WhatsApp messages released by Cummings show the former aide writing on March 27 2020 — near the beginning of the crisis — to the prime minister.
He complained that the US had gone from 2,200 tests a day to 27,000 to 100,000 in just a fortnight. Yet Hancock was saying he was “sceptical” about the UK reaching 10,000 by the following week — having previously said it would “definitely” happen — according to Cummings.
Johnson replied: “Totally fucking hopeless.” Hancock eventually set a target of 100,000 daily tests in early April, which was met a month later.
Britain’s lack of testing capacity at the start of the crisis has been a focus of criticism of the government.
One of Cummings’ most damaging claims was his suggestion that Hancock reassured Johnson that all people moved from hospitals to care homes would be tested beforehand, which did not happen.
Hancock has defended himself, insisting that testing would be done only when there was sufficient capacity.
In a blog post published on Wednesday, Cummings said Downing Street forced Hancock to create the more ambitious testing plan of 100,000 daily tests.
“Hancock is creating a new version of reality in which he came up with the idea to ramp up testing before 14 March, in an inspired and heroic move he announced his 100k target on 2 April to provide leadership, and this was responsible for the change in testing capacity,” Cummings wrote.
“The reality: as part of the transition to Plan B No10 forced a new testing plan on Hancock, who was still operating under Plan A / herd immunity assumptions in the week of 16/3 according to which community testing was pointless (hence why it was briefly officially stopped).”
The messages were published as MPs prepared to vote on the four-week delay to the planned lifting of lockdown on Wednesday afternoon.
This week, Hancock announced that the June 21 unlocking would be pushed back to July 19 to enable the NHS to inoculate all over-50s as well as healthcare workers and the most vulnerable.
Earlier on Wednesday, government scientists warned that the coronavirus reproduction number could have risen to as high as seven if all social distancing curbs were removed.
Speaking at a science and technology select committee, Susan Hopkins, deputy director at Public Health England’s National Infection Service, told MPs that if rules were to be lifted the R number could be “greater than five and maybe up to seven”.
That would mean that for every 10 people infected, a further 70 would be infected with coronavirus.