Matt Hancock is being lined up as the ‘fall guy’ for the government’s coronavirus failures, it was claimed today, as the Health Secretary faced growing criticism over his 100,000 daily testing target.
Mr Hancock has been one of the government’s most visible ministers during the outbreak after returning to the frontline following his own battle with the disease.
But he is under increasing pressure from critics who have questioned the wisdom of promising to increase the number of tests to six figures a day by the end of this month.
They have also attacked Mr Hancock over his handling of PPE shortages which have seen doctors, nurses and care home staff blast the government for failing to do enough to keep them safe.
Government inside sources said Mr Hancock has ‘not had a good crisis’ while a former Cabinet minister said some in Whitehall believe the Health Secretary had developed ‘a sort of Messiah complex’.
Some now expect Mr Hancock to be moved from the Department of Health before a widely-anticipated future inquiry is held into the government’s response to the outbreak.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, pictured at a Downing Street press conference on April 15, has been criticised over his pledge to ramp up coronavirus testing to 100,000 a day by the end of the month
Some in Whitehall believe Mr Hancock, pictured alongside Boris Johnson in November 2019, is being lined up as a ‘fall guy’ for the government’s coronavirus failings
Matt Hancock under pressure over coronavirus response
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has found himself at the centre of a number of controversies during the current crisis.
Testing target: Mr Hancock has set a daily coronavirus testing target of 100,000 by the end of the month. Government capacity is just 36,000 with nine days to go until the deadline. Critics have argued the target is ‘arbitrary’.
Antibody tests: The 100,000 target was originally expected to be a mix of antigen tests (those which show if someone currently has coronavirus) and antibody tests (those which show if someone has already had it). But the government is yet to find a mass-produced antibody test which actually works which means ministers are reliant on ramping up antigen testing to hit the target.
PPE: Doctors, nurses and care home staff have blasted the government over shortages of protective equipment which they say is putting lives at risk. Ministers insist they are doing everything they can to boost supply of the vital kit.
Social care: Mr Hancock has faced accusations of treating social care workers like ‘second class citizens’ when compared to their NHS colleagues. He has been attacked for failing to roll out testing to the sector quicker and for failing to improve PPE shipments sooner. He was also mocked after unveiling a new badge for the care sector only for people to point out it had already launched last summer.
Lockdown exit strategy: The Health Secretary hit the headlines earlier this month after a bad tempered interview with the BBC in which he suggested the public could not be trusted with a coronavirus ‘exit strategy’ because they might stop obeying lockdown rules.
Pay cut: Mr Hancock had urged Premier League footballers to take a pay cut during the crisis but then refused to take one himself. He was put on the spot on the issue after ministers in New Zealand said they were reducing their salaries.
Mr Hancock announced on April 2 his intention to increase coronavirus testing to 100,000 a day by the end of the month.
But with just nine days to go until the Health Secretary’s deadline, testing capacity actually went backwards yesterday from 38,000 to 36,000.
Meanwhile, the number of people being tested continues to languish far below capacity, with just over 19,000 tests carried out in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday.
A Number 10 insider told The Telegraph they believe the target will ‘come back to bite’ Mr Hancock amid suggestions the six figure ambition was not rubber stamped by Downing Street.
The source told the newspaper: ‘The problem is with this arbitrary target. There is a faint irrationality behind it, just because there was a clamour for mass testing. Hancock’s 100,000 target was a response to a criticism in the media and he decided to crank out tests regardless.
‘He’s not had a good crisis. The Prime Minister will say he has confidence in him but it doesn’t feel like that.’
The source said the 100,000 number was ‘Hancock’s idea, but he made that figure up’.
Critics have queried why the government is pushing so hard to ramp up testing given the fact demand is so much lower than capacity.
They have also argued that such a strategy would make more sense at the start of an outbreak when the emphasis is purely on stopping the spread of a killer disease.
Allies insist the 100,000 number was agreed by Number 10 and they fear Mr Hancock is being lined up as the victim of a government coronavirus blame game.
‘Anyone who thinks Matt just walked into a No10 press conference and came out with his own figure doesn’t have a clue how government works,’ allies said.
A Number 10 spokesman rubbished the suggestion the target had not been agreed, saying ‘we agreed the figure before it was announced and it remains a government target’.
Many in Whitehall are now increasingly conscious of a future coronavirus public inquiry which is now viewed as a certainty to take place in the coming years.
The issue of testing and the supply of PPE to the NHS are likely to dominate such a probe.
Some in Westminster believe Mr Hancock will be moved to another Cabinet job before an inquiry takes place.
One former Cabinet minister told The Telegraph: ‘There is a view growing in Cabinet that Matt has gone off on one, a sort of Messiah complex as one described it to me.’
Ministers plan to double number of swab centres to 50 in scramble to hit test target
Ministers are set to double the number of coronavirus test centres across the UK as the government faces just nine days to carry out some 80,000 extra tests per day to hit its own target.
Coronavirus testing centres across Britain have been left eerily quiet as fears build that Health Secretary Matt Hancock will not fulfil his pledge to test 100,000 people a day by the end of this month.
Photographs taken yesterday showed near-empty test centres at the likes of Twickenham Stadium in West London, the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, Brighton and Hove Albion FC and Plymouth.
Local government minister Simon Clarke today admitted reaching the target was a ‘huge challenge’ as he revealed the Government was moving from 26 current testing facilities to 50.
Increased testing capacity will eventually form part of the government’s test and trace programme which will be key to allowing the UK to emerge from the current state of lockdown.
Under that plan, once the spread is reduced to low levels, anyone who gets symptoms would be tested and isolated while all the people they have come into contact with would also be traced and tested. This would keep community transmission low and keep the disease in check.
A source with knowledge of the strategy said Mr Hancock should have done a better job of explaining how testing will be used in the future.
They said you cannot just ‘flick a switch’ and roll out millions of test in the community because it is a ‘logistical nightmare’ and the Health Secretary ‘should have explained this from the start’.
Mr Hancock has been hindered in making progress on the 100,000 target by the government’s inability to find a mass-produced antibody test which would show if someone has had the disease and now has immunity – a potential game changer in allowing people to go back to normal life.
A drive-through test centre at Twickenham rugby stadium in West London yesterday appeared to be lying empty
No country in the world has found such a test as yet but it was originally thought the 100,000 number would be a mix of antibody and antigen testing , with the latter showing if someone currently has the disease.
Now the government is trying to hit the six figure target using only antigen testing.
Mr Hancock has found himself at the centre of a number of controversies during the coronavirus crisis.
He sparked the anger of health bosses after claiming demand for coronavirus tests among NHS staff had dipped over the Easter weekend which had allowed the government to roll out testing to social care workers.
But health chiefs confronted Mr Hancock over the claim and told him they were still struggling to get all self-isolating NHS staff tested.
Mr Hancock was told that some sick nurses had been driving for two hours to get to a drive-through testing centre only to be told to come back another day.
Ministers announced today that the number of drive-through centres is being increased from 26 to 50 after photographs taken yesterday showed a number of sites were eerily quiet.
The likes of Twickenham Stadium in West London, the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, Brighton and Hove Albion FC and Plymouth were all visibly quiet.
Mr Hancock has faced pressure over the way in which social care staff have been treated by the government amid claims they were being viewed as ‘second class citizens’ when compared to their NHS counterparts on the key issues of PPE and testing.
He was ridiculed after unveiling a new badge for care workers so they can enjoy the same perks as NHS staff as critics pointed out it had actually been launched last summer.
A row over PPE continues to rumble on with doctors and nurses adamant they do not have enough gowns, gloves and masks to work safely while ministers insist they are doing everything they can to boost supply.
Mr Hancock also hit the headlines earlier this month after a bad tempered interview with the BBC in which he insisted the public cannot be trusted with a coronavirus ‘exit strategy’ because they might stop obeying lockdown rules.
The Health Secretary said he recognised that ‘everybody wants to know what the future looks like’.
But he flatly dismissed calls for the government to flesh out how the restrictions will finally be eased.
In bruising clashes with Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4”s Today programme, Mr Hancock angrily told the interviewer to stop interrupting.
He said: ‘The communications are part of the policy. That is why we will not be distracted in to confusing that messaging. The scientists can say what they like, the commentators can say what they like.’