London: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday denied overseeing the needless deaths of many thousands of COVID patients, after his former chief adviser alleged the government's pandemic response was undermined by lies and incompetence.
Johnson declined to say whether Dominic Cummings was telling the truth in his incendiary claims to MPs on Wednesday, but said: "Some of the commentary I've heard doesn't bear any relation to reality."
Cummings, an abrasive political strategist who masterminded the anti-EU campaign in Britain's Brexit referendum, called Johnson "unfit for the job" and said Health Secretary Matt Hancock was a serial liar.
Asked about Cummings' central claim that tens of thousands of people had died needlessly last year, including in care homes for the elderly, Johnson told reporters: "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, insisting the government did all it could to save lives and protect the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
Cummings said the health minister "should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things" after "lying to everybody on multiple occasions, in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly".
Hancock claimed in May 2020 to have thrown a "protective ring" around care homes - but the main opposition Labour party noted that 30,000 elderly residents have died of COVID-19 and 20,000 older patients were discharged from hospitals without testing.
Labour also highlighted Cummings' assertion that Hancock had dishonestly blamed NHS chiefs for the government's failure to procure adequate personal protective equipment for frontline medics.
'We did everything we could'
The "unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true", Hancock responded in parliament on Thursday, insisting he had been "straight with people in public and in private throughout".
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 distracted by personal issues and media coverage.
Downing Street has disputed the claims.
Coronavirus has claimed nearly 128,000 lives in the UK - the fifth-highest official death toll in the world, and the highest in Europe.
But Johnson's government has also overseen a successful vaccination drive, having offered more than two-thirds of all adults at least one dose.
However, scientists say the progress is threatened by the rapid growth of a COVID variant that first emerged in India, which could imperil the government's plans to fully reopen the economy after June 21.
Johnson said the timetable remained on track, but would be governed by the science as more data on the variant comes through.
The Indian variant now accounts for half to three-quarters of all new cases in Britain, Hancock said, after the latest data showed infection numbers trending at their highest level for six weeks.
But numbers of hospitalisations and deaths remain low, and current vaccines appear effective against the variant, he told a news conference.
Hancock was pressed anew on why, in March 2020, he agreed to a plan to discharge thousands of elderly people back to care homes to free up beds in hospitals without a proper testing regime in place, allowing COVID-19 to rip through the homes.
Cummings said Hancock lied to him and to Johnson back then in claiming that testing was already operational for the returning residents, when he only put in place a regime later.
"There will be a time when we go back over all this in greater detail," Hancock said, referring to a public inquiry promised by Johnson.
"My recollection is I committed to the testing when we could do it... and then delivered on the commitment that I made. That's a normal way of how you get things done in government."