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Health secretary Matt Hancock stands accused of trying to “twist the truth” over the coronavirus lockdown after a top scientist revealed the government was advised to bring in full measures days earlier.
Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer (CSO), said the government was told on either March 16 or 18 that the “remainder of the measures should be introduced as soon as possible”.
At the time, the Covid-19 “doubling time had gone down to three days”, Vallance said.
While schools were closed and social distancing advice was issued between March 16 and 18, Boris Johnson did not order a full lockdown until March 23, when he said in a televised address: “I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
Hancock was taken to task by Labour in the Commons and now faces claims he is trying to “rewrite history” over the date when lockdown was imposed.
He said: “Of course March 16 is the day I came to this House and said all unnecessary social contact should cease.
“That is precisely when the lockdown was started.”
Sources close to Hancock point out that records of meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the government scientists, rather than “all remaining measures” call for “additional measures” to be introduced on March 16.
A number of experts and political opponents, however, have said ministers were too slow to issue a full lockdown, however, and that more lives were lost as a result.
Following calls for Hancock to offer answers from shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana said “advising people to socially distance is not the same as imposing a lockdown”, adding: “That week-long delay could have cost thousands of lives.”
But Hancock doubled down, hitting back: “She’s trying again… on March 16 I said to this House, and it was welcomed by the front bench opposite, ‘today we’re advising people against all unnecessary social contact with others and all unnecessary travel’.
“That is when the lockdown truly started.”
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy is among those levelling criticism at Hancock online.
He tweeted: “Matt Hancock is trying to claim Lockdown started on March 16 even though it was not imposed until March 23.
“The Tories want to rewrite history because they were too slow to act – with disastrous consequences. The government must learn from its mistakes, not twist the truth.”
ITV’s Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan described the March 16 claim a “bare-faced lie”.
Unbelievable.. @MattHancock is now claiming the UK locked down on March 16, not 23. This is a demonstrable bare-faced lie to try to disguise the fact we locked down so woefully late & it cost so many 1000s of lives. Even by our Health Secretary’s standards, this is shameful.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) July 16, 2020
Labour MP Bill Esterston added: Hancock says he followed the Sage advice to lockdown on 16 March. So why wasn’t full lockdown implemented for another week?”
Vallance had told the Commons’ science and technology committee earlier on Thursday: “When the SAGE sub-group on modelling SPI-M (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling) saw that the doubling time had gone down to three days, which was in the middle of March, that is when the advice that SAGE issued was the remainder of measures should be introduced as soon as possible.
“And that advice I think was given on March 18 or March 16.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.