Boris Johnson defiant after being accused of overseeing pandemic chaos

Former chief aide Dominic Cummings attacked the prime minister for causing 'unnecessary' deaths

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday rejected claims by his former chief adviser that he oversaw the "unnecessary" deaths of thousands in his handling of the pandemic.

Mr Johnson declined to say whether Dominic Cummings, his former right-hand man, was telling the truth during his scathing attack on the prime minister's character while giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.

The former top aide called Mr Johnson "unfit for the job" and accused Health Secretary Matt Hancock of being a serial liar.

Mr Johnson said "some of the commentary I've heard doesn't bear any relation to reality" and he had tried to minimise loss of life "at every stage".

Asked if thousands had died unnecessarily from Covid-19 last year, Mr Johnson said: "No, no, I don't think so.

"Of course, this has been an incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we've taken lightly," he said.

Mr Hancock insisted he had always "been straight with people" throughout the pandemic.

Mr Cummings said Mr Hancock "should have been fired for 15 or 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting".

He accused the health secretary of lying about Covid testing in care homes, hospital treatment during the first coronavirus wave and about the supply of personal protective equipment.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, Mr Hancock said the allegations were not true.

"These allegations that were put yesterday ... are serious allegations," he said.

"I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true, and that I've been straight with people in public and in private throughout."

Mr Cummings said Mr Hancock had failed to honour a promise that people would be tested before they were sent into care homes to free hospital beds and prevent wards from being overwhelmed.

Mr Hancock said last year the government threw a "protective ring around" care homes at the beginning of the pandemic.

BOLTON, ENGLAND - MAY 26: People shop and go about their daily life in Bolton town centre as surge testing and rapid coronavirus vaccinations continue on May 26, 2021 in Bolton, England. The UK government amended earlier advice asking people to avoid non-essential travel to and from Bolton and seven other places in England experiencing spikes in Covid-19 cases. New guidance asks that people minimise travel to such places, whose local authorities were largely surprised by the initial rule change, published without fanfare on a government website on May 14. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

"Hancock told us in the Cabinet Room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes," Mr Cummings said.

"We only subsequently found out that that hadn't happened. Now, all the government rhetoric was 'we put a shield around care homes and blah blah' – it's complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around care homes, we sent people with Covid back to care homes."

The policy of returning infected elderly patients to care homes was blamed for more than 25,000 people dying from the virus in care homes in Britain.

"I'm sure some people were tested," Mr Cummings said. "But obviously many, many people who should have been tested were not tested and then went back to care homes and then infected people, and then it spread like wildfire inside the care homes."

Mr Johnson said the deaths in care homes were "tragic, but we did everything we could to protect the NHS, to minimise transmission with the knowledge that we had".

The prime minister himself faces questions over whether, as claimed by Cummings, he refused to take the pandemic seriously, ignored scientific advice at a key point, and was obsessed by personal issues and media coverage.

Coronavirus has claimed nearly 128,000 lives in the UK, the fifth-highest official death toll in the world, and the highest in Europe.

Neil Ferguson: earlier lockdown would have saved 30,000 lives

Earlier on Thursday, a leading scientist behind the UK’s coronavirus response said as many as 30,000 deaths would have been prevented had the country locked down a week earlier.

The comments from Prof Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist at University College London, were in response to Mr Cumming's claim that  “tens of thousands of people died who didn't need to die”.

Mr Cummings said key health officials “were literally skiing” when the UK should have been drawing up plans to curtail the spread of the disease early last year.

Former number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings leaves Parliament after giving evidence to a Parliamentary committee hearing in London on May 26, 2021. The British government "disastrously" failed people by repeatedly mishandling its response to the coronavirus pandemic, ultimately showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson is "unfit for the job", his former top adviser Dominic Cummings told lawmakers on Wednesday. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS

Asked about the events leading up to the first lockdown on March 23, Prof Ferguson said the worsening situation and the increase in new cases eventually “focused minds” within the government.

He agreed that authorities should have issued the stay-at-home order sooner.

"Had we locked down a week earlier, we would have saved half the lives, but that was much earlier in the pandemic, about 20,000 to 30,000 lives and I think that is unarguable," he told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme.

“The epidemic was doubling every three to four days. Had we moved the interventions back a week, we would have curtailed that and saved many lives.”

Prof Ferguson said scientists became “increasingly concerned” over the failure to put in place social distancing measures sooner.

In early March last year, UK government advice focused on the importance of hand-washing and hygiene measures.

It was during this time that Mr Cummings said senior ministers and medical officials were pursuing a herd immunity strategy, suggesting that the "entire assumption" in Whitehall was that no vaccines would be available in 2020, while suppressing the first wave of infection would only lead to surges later in the year.

He said it was hoped herd immunity would be achieved by September after the first wave had been and gone.

Asked whether Mr Cummings’ statement was correct, Prof Ferguson said he was not privy to decisions taken by ministers.

“I will take his and other people’s word for what was going on in government,” he said.

“From the scientific side, there was increasing concern that week leading up to March 13 about the lack of a clear, resolved plan over what would happen in the next few days in terms of implementing social distancing.”