Health Secretary Matt Hancock is coming under mounting pressure over his handling of the coronavirus crisis as eminent statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter said his testing figures are ‘completely embarrassing’.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he accused the government of misleading the public over the number of tests carried out daily by conflating the number done with the number posted out.
It follows reports Hancock urged Boris Johnson to ‘give me a break’ in a furious bust-up over the coronavirus crisis, and his department’s continuing failure to hit its 100,000 tests-a-day target.
Today marked the eighth day Hancock’s department missed its target, falling 7,163 tests short at 92,837. It also marked a drop by 4,041 tests from yesterday’s total of 96,878.
The escalating row – which raises questions over the beleaguered Minister’s Cabinet future – can be revealed as the Prime Minister prepares to use a televised address to the nation this evening to set out his roadmap for easing the national lockdown.
The government has been criticised for its daily tests data, which conflates the number of tests carried out with the number posted to homes across the country
The statistician, who chairs the Winton Centre at Cambridge University, said in a fiery interview: ‘We got lots of big numbers (at the most recent daily press briefing), precise numbers of tests done…
‘Well that’s not how many were done yesterday, it includes tests that were posted out.’
Bristling with criticism, he continued: ‘We are told 31,587 people have died – no they haven’t, it is far more than that.
‘So I think it is not trustworthy communication of statistics, and it is such a missed opportunity.
‘There is a public out there who are broadly very supportive of the measures, they are hungry for details, for facts, for genuine information.
‘And yet they get fed what I call number theatre, which seems to be co-ordinated much more by a No10 communications team rather than genuinely trying to inform people about what is going on.
‘I just wish that the data was being brought together and presented by people who really know its strengths and limitations and could treat the audience with some respect.’
Prof Spiegelhalter has also written a book on numbers, called The Art of Statistics.
The government has repeatedly referenced his article on global coronavirus data to suggest that UK deaths should not be compared to other countries.
In a tweet on May 6, however, he rebuffed their claims writing: ‘Polite request to PM and others: Please stop using my Guardian article to claim we cannot make any international comparison yet.
‘I refer only to detailed league tables – of course we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high.’
Matt Hancock is coming under increasing pressure over his handling of the coronavirus crisis. He is pictured above approaching Downing Street on VE day
Number of coronavirus tests carried out since May 1 deadline
May 1 – 122,347
May 2 – 105,937
May 3 – 76,496
May 4 – 85,186
May 5 – 84,806
May 6 – 69,463 (low since May 1)
May 7 – 86,583
May 8 – 97,029
May 9 – 96,878
May 10 – 92,837
Hancock claimed the UK had reached his 100,000 tests-a-day target on May 1, with 122,347 completed, but numbers have dramatically slid backwards since then.
Yesterday Department of Health figures say just 96,878 tests were completed, 3,000 below the initial target. They fell to a low of 69,463 on May 6.
As criticism mounted it has also emerged that 50,000 coronavirus tests have been sent to the US for analysis following capacity issues in the UK.
The government has blamed this on ‘operational issues’ while the Department of Health said it was among the ‘contingencies’ to deal with ‘problems’.
The prime minister will be announcing how the UK’s lockdown is set to continue after 7pm today.
His plans include introducing a five-stage alert system – similar to that used to highlight the risk of a terrorist attack – to signal the risk of infection in different parts of the country.
While a green Level One alert would mean life carrying on normally, a red Level Five means that the NHS is in a critical state and on the brink of being overwhelmed.
No 10 is also preparing to launch a new slogan – ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ – to replace advice to stay at home, indicating a gradual move to a less draconian set of restrictions.
But the Government will take a cautious approach after scientific advisers warned that Covid-19 is ‘ripping through care homes’.
The PM will speak to the nation at 7pm on Sunday outlining his five-step exit plan out of lockdown. This weekend, he is expected to announce that garden centres will be allowed to open from Wednesday and publish guidance for safer working in offices
A surge in the R-number, which measures how quickly the virus is spreading, came in a ‘chilling briefing’ from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to the Cabinet.
A source said: ‘Sage say we are one wrong move away from R going back to where it was in March.’
Pressure intensified on Mr Hancock over his handling of the crisis last night after more than 25 million goggles were found to offer frontline NHS workers inadequate defence against the deadly virus.
The latest in a string of embarrassing Government failures over Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) came as senior sources suggested to The Mail on Sunday that Mr Hancock was now living ‘on borrowed time’ in the Cabinet.
One source claimed Boris Johnson had raised questions with Mr Hancock about his department’s grip on the crisis, only for the Minister to plead: ‘That’s not fair – give me a break.’
The 25.6 million pairs of Tiger Eye goggles bought for the NHS are not fit for purpose, according to the British Standards Institute: 15.9 million of them have already been distributed, with hospitals now being told to withdraw the remaining 9.7 million from use.
During another weekend of dramatic developments:
- Mr Johnson is expected to confirm that garden centres will be allowed to open from Wednesday and publish guidance for safer working in offices – but tougher fines of up to £3,000 for breaches of the rules
- Airports and travel companies reacted with fury to plans to impose two weeks’ quarantine on anyone arriving in the country, including UK citizens returning from holiday
- The UK death toll rose by 346 to 31,587, including more than 200 healthcare workers. Globally, there have been almost 4 million cases with more than 276,000 lives lost
- Ministers voiced suspicion that political opponents and union barons were colluding to block schools reopening until pay demands were met
- Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a £2 billion package to boost cycling and walking
- Actress Miriam Margolyes faced fury for saying she had hoped Mr Johnson would die from coronavirus
Mr Hancock’s spokesman said Ministers were ‘furious’ about the mistake with the goggles, which they said had been ordered by Gordon Brown’s Labour Government in 2009.
A Health Department source dubbed them ‘Gordon’s goggles’ and added that they were bought against 2001 standards of protection which were superseded by the time they were purchased. ‘Even a decade on, we are still having to clear up Labour’s mess’, the source added.
Around 3 million eye protectors are used every day in hospitals, meaning more than eight days’ supply has been lost. But a Department of Health spokesman insisted the NHS had enough stock to be able to immediately stop using the Tiger Eye goggles.
However, the latest PPE fiasco will be damaging to the Health Secretary, coming days after it emerged that surgical gowns ordered from Turkey and flown into the UK amid great fanfare did not all meet British safety standards.
‘The feeling is that Hancock is on borrowed time,’ said a senior Government source.
‘He has fallen out with the most powerful figures in the Government, from the Prime Minister down.
‘Nothing will change immediately. But once we have beaten this thing, expect him to be moved.’
A source close to Mr Hancock admitted tensions had run high in the run-up to the deadline for hitting a target of 100,000 tests a day, but said ‘the PM was full of praise for his performance’.
‘We’ve been working incredibly well with the PM and the whole No10 team and have had nothing but total support from them,’ the source added.
‘During Cabinet the PM praised Matt for doing an “amazing job in hellishly difficult circumstances.” ’
Mr Johnson will address the country after leading a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee this afternoon.
A No 10 source said: ‘This is a critical moment so, having assessed the evidence carefully, the Prime Minister will ask for the public resolve as we continue to do whatever is needed to defeat this devastating virus.’
In a similar way to how the level of terror threat is set by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre and MI5, the Covid alert level will be set by medical and data experts working for a new ‘Joint Biosecurity Centre’.
‘School prefect’ Matt Hancock ‘is living on borrowed time’ after clashes with Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson
Matt Hancock is living on ‘borrowed time’ as Health Secretary following clashes with the three most powerful members of the Government over the Covid crisis, The Mail on Sunday has been told.
Mr Hancock is understood to have pleaded ‘give me a break’ when Boris Johnson reprimanded him over the virus testing programme – leading to open questioning within Downing Street over Mr Hancock’s long-term political future.
His run-in with Mr Johnson follows battles with both Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove over the best strategy for managing the pandemic.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is ‘on borrowed time’ after falling out with the three highest members of Government.
Mr Hancock’s clash with the PM follows battles with Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove (left) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (right)
Shortly after Mr Johnson returned to work at No 10 a fortnight ago, he and Mr Johnson had a tense exchange about the the Health Department’s ‘grip’ on the crisis, during which Mr Hancock said to the Prime Minister, in what has been described as a ‘petulant’ tone: ‘That’s not fair – give me a break.’
He is also being blamed in some Government quarters – or scapegoated, according to his allies – for not moving quickly enough to do more to protect care homes from the epidemic.
Officials in Whitehall knew as early as the first week of March that the projected death rate among the over-90s was expected to be as high as 50 per cent, leading to discussions about ‘cocooning’ the institutions from infection.
Mr Hancock has also been accused of not moving quickly enough to protect care-homes from the deadly virus
But as the infection rates started to climb later that month, care workers were still entering the homes – many of them having travelled in on public transport – without the necessary protective equipment.
With the reproduction rate of the virus now falling in the wider community, it is the continuing spread in residential care homes which has so far prevented Mr Johnson from lifting more of the lockdown measures.
And Mr Hancock has annoyed Downing Street with his tendency to come up with spur-of-the-moment policies – such as his threat last month to ban all outside exercise, which he had to climb down over almost immediately.
One No10 source expressed irritation at what they described as ‘Hancock’s insistence on playing the big man’ during the crisis.
It has led to the Health Secretary being likened by some to a school prefect – but one ‘who never gets to be head boy’.
The Health Secretary was also described as a prefect ‘who never gets to be head boy’ by a Downing Street source. (Cartoon by Henry Davies)
A senior Government source said: ‘The feeling is that Hancock is on borrowed time. He has fallen out with the most powerful figures in the Government, from the Prime Minister down.
‘Nothing will change immediately. But once we have beaten this thing, expect him to be moved.’
As a Cabinet ‘dove’ who opposes an early relaxation of the lockdown rules, Mr Hancock has been engaged in running ideological battles with Chancellor Mr Sunak, who leads the Cabinet ‘hawks’ who are keen to pull the economy out of its Covid-inflicted nosedive as soon as possible.
Although allies of both men insist they share the same aim of saving lives while protecting the economy, there is little doubt that they differ about how to achieve it – and have had ‘robust’ exchanges on the matter.
Mr Hancock is believed to have participated in several ideological battles with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is keen to quickly pull the economy out of its Covid-inflicted nosedive
The Health Secretary has also fallen out with Mr Gove (left) over the supply of ventilators and protective equipment across the country
Mr Hancock has also made the mistake of crossing swords with Mr Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
The two Cabinet ministers – who each chair one of the four committees set up to tackle the virus, as well as sitting on the daily C-19 super-committee chaired by the Prime Minister, and the Cobra emergency committee – have clashed over the supply of ventilators and protective equipment.
Mr Gove was described by one colleague as being ‘much more across the detail’ than Mr Hancock – and ‘not shy about displaying it’.
Mr Hancock is also regarded with suspicion within Mr Johnson’s pro-Brexit inner circle because of his previous closeness to George Osborne, the Remainer former Chancellor.
He ran for the leadership last year on a soft-Brexit ticket, only to pull out when he mustered just 20 votes. He switched to supporting Mr Johnson, the frontrunner, in the process shedding his soft Brexit views and dropping his opposition to Mr Johnson’s plan to suspend Parliament to force through Brexit.
At one point during Mr Johnson’s campaign, when Mr Hancock visited his Commons office to offer his support, Mr Johnson is said to have made an obscene hand gesture as Mr Hancock left.
Mr Hancock also attracted criticism last week for telling a female Labour MP to ‘watch her tone’ after she grilled him on the Government’s coronavirus testing strategy. His remark to Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who also works as an A&E doctor, sparked uproar among MPs who accused him of sexism.
The Health Secretary was also accused of sexism after he told Labour MP and A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan (left) to ‘watch her tone’ in a House of Commons session
In a spur-of-the-moment policy, Mr Hancock threatened to ban all outdoor exercise across the UK in order the combat the virus but pressure from Downing Street forced him to abandon this idea
Mr Hancock was forced to abandon his threat to ban all outside exercise under intense pressure from Downing Street.
One official said at the time: ‘If he doesn’t dig himself out of this hole [at that day’s press conference] then we will do it for him’. Mr Hancock duly performed a sharp U-turn at the briefing.
A source close to Mr Hancock said: ‘We’ve been working incredibly well with the PM and the whole No 10 team and have had nothing but total support from them.’The source added that Mr Johnson had praised Mr Hancock for doing an ‘amazing job in hellishly difficult circumstances’.
MoS LAUNCHES £3MILLION FUND TO HELP SMALL FIRMS BEAT THE VIRUS
The Mail on Sunday today launches a £3 million support package to help small firms battle the coronavirus crisis.
The owner of the MoS, Daily Mail, Metro and the i is giving away £3,000 of advertising in its newspapers – and on Mail Online and metro.co.uk – to 1,000 small businesses.
The groundbreaking giveaway, launched in collaboration with the Federation of Small Businesses, will open for applications from Wednesday at grants.fsb.org.uk.
It is The Mail on Sunday’s way of doing our bit to help firms that provide incomes for more than 17 million people and comes hot on the heels of the hugely successful Mail Force initiative.
That charity, set up by MoS owner Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) and its partners, has already raised over £6 million to fly in millions of items of vital protective equipment for NHS staff and care workers.
Today, a survey by accountancy software giant Sage finds one in three firms expect sales to be 50 per cent lower after lockdown is eased. Separate research from legal firm Buckworths found a quarter of small firms do not think the Government’s existing support measures will be enough for them to survive.
Mike Cherry, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: ‘Our members will be hugely grateful to The Mail on Sunday for this generous support. It’s fantastic.
‘The pandemic is likely to have an impact on businesses for months – if not years – to come and they’ll need a lot of help to get back on their feet.
‘It won’t be enough to rely on word of mouth to attract new customers. We urge every eligible member to apply for this advertising giveaway.