He made the extraordinary claim despite the disgraced health secretary making clear he had resigned on Saturday – 24 hours after the prime minister kept him in his post.
Mr Hancock only walked the plank after the angry backlash from the public and some Conservative MPs convinced him he lacked all credibility in the pandemic-fighting role.
On Friday – when it emerged he had breached restrictions by kissing his aide, Gina Coladangelo, in his office – Downing Street accepted his apology and insisted there was no reason to sack him.
However, during a campaign visit to the Batley by-election, the prime minister claimed the departure had happened at “about the right pace” during a pandemic.
“I read the story on Friday and we’ve got a new health secretary in post on Saturday and I think that’s about the right pace to proceed in a pandemic,” he argued.
The prime minister also stoked further controversy by failing to deny he has ever used his personal email address to conduct official business – another allegation levelled at Mr Hancock.
“I don’t comment on how I conduct government business,” he said, adding: “But I can tell you that we in this government are getting on with focusing on the people’s priorities.”
Labour seized on Mr Johnson’s comments about the health secretary’s departure as an attempt “to rewrite history because he didn’t have the guts to sack Matt Hancock”.
“On Friday, he said the matter was closed. It is far from closed, there are serious unanswered questions,” said Angela Rayner MP, the party’s deputy leader.
“A fish rots from the head down and, by failing to sack the former health secretary, Johnson proved he doesn’t have the leadership qualities or judgement required to be prime minister.”
But Downing Street then caused further confusion, the prime minister’s official spokesperson insisting Mr Hancock was not sacked, saying: “No, the former health secretary resigned.
“They discussed it further on Saturday and the prime minister agreed with the former health secretary that he was right to tender his resignation.”
The spokesperson also:
– Insisted Mr Hancock had not used a personal email account for government business, as alleged – while suggesting that use had included “diary acceptances”.
– Said the former health secretary is not under any investigation – despite Labour calls for one.
– Confirmed Mr Hancock personally appointed Ms Coladangelo to the post of non-executive director – while insisting “Her appointment followed correct procedure”.
– Said no cabinet reshuffle is planned imminently – although one is widely expected by September at the latest.
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