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MPs press Hancock on his ‘bitter regret’ at not overruling scientists

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Tory committee chairs demand answers from health secretary on wanting to overrule Covid transmission advice

The chairs of two influential House of Commons committees have rebuked health secretary Matt Hancock for giving what appeared to be misleading answers about scientific advice at a joint session of their committees on 10 June.

Greg Clark, head of the Science and Technology Committee, and Jeremy Hunt, head of the Health and Social Care Committee, have been investigating the government’s response to the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. The inquiry has focused particularly on how Hancock and his fellow ministers used scientific evidence as the basis for their decisions.

During his appearance before the inquiry, Hancock insisted that in his decisions about the possibility of the virus being transmitted by asymptomatic individuals, he had followed the guidance of his scientific advisers but now wished that he had chosen differently.

“I bitterly regret that I did not overrule the scientific advice at the start and say that we should proceed on the basis that there is asymptomatic transmission until we know there is not, rather than the other way around,” Hancock told the inquiry. “But when you are faced with a global consensus, and you do not have the evidence that you are right and scientific consensus is wrong, it is hard to do that.”

However, a letter on 22 June from the two committee chairs suggests that Hancock was wrong to claim that there was a scientific consensus that downplayed the risks of asymptomatic patients spreading the virus around their communities.

The chairs point out that the minutes of a meeting of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on 28 January showed that its members had considered the possibility of asymptomatic people passing on the virus and believed that it could be a factor in the epidemiology of the disease.

Sage had agreed at the time that it would not be appropriate to begin testing asymptomatic individuals because “a negative test result could not be interpreted with certainty”. But the group did warn that while there was “limited evidence of asymptomatic transmission…early indications imply some is occurring”.

‘Offhand response’

The letter from Clark and Hunt goes on to admonish Hancock over his response to a request in April 2020 from three senior UK scientists that the government should begin testing healthcare workers for the virus. Nobel laureates Paul Nurse and Peter Ratcliffe, along with Sam Barrell, chief operating officer of the Francis Crick Institute, were joint signatories to a letter to Hancock highlighting the growing evidence for asymptomatic transmission.

“Our perception is that, at present, there is reticence about doing more widespread testing of healthcare workers…We therefore advise you to action an initiative that all NHS trusts and healthcare providers should be required to set up surveillance systems for the regular testing (both virological and serological) of all healthcare workers and patients with immediate effect,” Nurse, Ratcliffe and Barrell said.

Clark and Hunt express astonishment at the tardy response to this proposal. The three scientists did not get a reply until 6 July—and that was only a letter from a clerk in Hancock’s department, while a junior ministerial colleague sent a pro forma response, they say.

“It is surprising that such eminent scientists wrote to you personally to raise such an important and urgent issue and were sent only an offhand response, several months after they had written to you,” the chairs say.

Further clarification

Their letter asks Hancock to clarify what advice he did receive during this period about the risks of asymptomatic transmission and the need to test staff in health and social care institutions. They add: “We would also be grateful for further details of what steps the government took, and when, in light of the emerging evidence.”

Hancock made a number of other commitments to provide information to the committees’ inquiry during his appearance on 10 June, which the chairs now demand be supplied by 29 June. These include:

  • A copy of Hancock’s note of his meeting with the World Health Organization at the end of January regarding asymptomatic transmission.
  • Clinical and scientific advice relating to asymptomatic transmission.
  • The number of people fully complying with isolation requests.
  • The peer-reviewed status of Public Health England’s paper on the contribution of hospital-associated infection to care home outbreaks.
  • A suggestion to provide the evidence behind his point that there is no evidence that a shortage of personal protective equipment provision led to anybody dying of Covid-19.

Sal Brinton, a Liberal Democrat peer and their spokesperson for health told Research Professional News that her party has been saying for months that “ministerial versions of how, when and why decisions were made during the pandemic is out of touch with reality. This letter starts to provide some of that evidence.”

“The families of those who have lost loved ones deserve better,” she said. “The government must start an independent public enquiry this year to understand and learn where mistakes were made, to prevent them happening again.”

Brinton added: “It is clear that we have to learn to live with Covid-19 for some time to come. It is vital, therefore, that ministers, including Mr Hancock, should be engaging with the beginning of this process instead of trying to deflect and defend when they failed to listen to experts.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “As the Health and Social Care secretary said, Covid-19 is a new virus and at the start of this unprecedented pandemic the evidence around asymptomatic transmission was very limited.

“We kept our advice and approach under constant review and acted decisively as more evidence and scientific data emerged. This includes rapidly rolling out extensive community testing to find asymptomatic cases and break the chains of transmission.

“Everyone in England, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms, can now access rapid testing twice a week for free, in line with clinical guidance. Over 100 million LFDs [lateral flow device tests] have been carried out so far with over 190,000 cases identified that would not have been detected otherwise—helping to stop the spread of the virus and keep people safe.”