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UK health minister on the defensive after Cummings' attack

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By Euronews
Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaks during a coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street in London
Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaks during a coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street in London   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

The UK's health minister Matt Hancock has been defending himself after a blistering attack from the prime minister's former chief aide Dominic Cummings.

Cummings had said Hancock should have been fired and accused him of lying on multiple occasions. 

But Hancock shot back on Thursday: "``I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout. Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I've got up each morning and asked: `'What must I do to protect life?'"

Pressed on one of Cummings' key claims -- that Hancock lied about COVID-testing people before they were able to return to care homes early on in the pandemic -- the health minister insisted that he and others had done "everything we possibly could" to protect people.

He said testing for people going from hospitals to care homes could only be fully rolled out "once testing capacity was built".

"Of course we committed, and I committed, to getting the policy in place - but it took time to build the testing," he said. "My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones but all I can say is that we worked to do everything we possibly could in what were difficult circumstances."

Hancock insisted he acted on "clinical advice on what the appropriate thing to do was" throughout the process.

"That was the best way to proceed in these circumstances, but critically, you've got to build the testing capacity and that's what we did and we published all these plans at the time."

Cummings, who left his job as Prime Minister Boris Johnson's top adviser in November, claimed the government's slow and chaotic initial response, and Johnson's failure to learn from mistakes, meant that tens of thousands of people had died. Johnson insists his actions were dictated by scientific data. 

The UK has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe, and experienced one of the world's deepest recessions in 2020 as three successive lockdowns hobbled the economy.

The government says it will begin an independent public inquiry into its handling of the pandemic within the next year. Opposition politicians, and families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, want it to start sooner.