The allegations are based on a trove of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages obtained by the Daily Telegraph giving an insight into the way government operated at the height of the pandemic.
But Mr Hancock’s spokesman said the report was “flat wrong”, insisting that he had been told it was “not currently possible” to carry out the tests. The Independent takes a closer look at the claims and counter-claims.
The crucial dispute on care home testing centres around a series of messages between Mr Hancock and his aide Allan Nixon.
Chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty is said to have told the then-health secretary in April 2020 there should be testing for “all going into care homes”. In one message on 14 April, Mr Hancock described it as “obviously a good positive step”.
But he later messages his aide: “Tell me if I’m wrong but I would rather leave it out and just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital. I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters.”
Mr Hancock’s spokesman said the Telegraph had “doctored” messages to leave out the crucial fact that the aide had not been to a meeting.
He said Mr Hancock had convened an operational meeting on delivering testing for care homes on 14 April “where he was advised it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes, which he also accepted”.
The spokesman said: “Matt concluded that the testing of people leaving hospital for care homes should be prioritised because of the higher risks of transmission, as it wasn’t possible to mandate everyone going into care homes got tested.”
But The Telegraph maintains that the texts were published in full. Sources said they were “baffled” by the suggestion that the messages were doctored.
According the Telegraph’s investigation, Mr Hancock expressed concerns that expanding care home testing could “get in the way” of the target of 100,000 daily Covid tests he set out at the start of April 2020.
The newspaper said on 24 April a civil servant in Mr Hancock’s office sent him a message passing with advice that the department should “prioritise testing of asymptomatic staff and residents” in care homes hit by a Covid outbreak.
Mr Hancock is said to have replied: “This is ok so long as it does not get in the way of actually fulfilling the capacity in testing.”
The spokesman for Mr Hancock said he went “as far as possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives”.
He added: “It is outrageous that this distorted account of the pandemic is being pushed with partial leaks, spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda, which would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives if followed. What the messages do show is a lot of people working hard to save lives.”
Answering an urgent question from Labour, health minister Helen Whately told MPs the “importance of testing was never in doubt”, but added “tough decisions about prioritisation had to be made”.
Ms Whately added: “I should mention that selective snippets of WhatsApp conversations give a limited and at times misleading insight into the machinery of government at the time.”