Review contradicts Boris Johnson on claims he ordered early lockdown at UK care homes

Boris Johnson told parliament on Wednesday that his government moved swiftly to protect the country's vulnerable care homes. Under increasing pressure to defend his record on fighting Covid-19, he said: "We brought in the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown."

An examination by Reuters of the guidance issued to care homes, as well as interviews with three care home providers, has provided no evidence that any such early lockdown was ordered.

The government's handling of care homes has emerged as a major controversy in parliament. According to a Reuters analysis of official figures (here), the pandemic has resulted in over 20,000 deaths in UK care homes.

The prime minister's spokesman told reporters on Wednesday that in his comments earlier that day to parliament, Johnson was referring to government advice to care homes, issued on March 13. This advice, he said, was "recommending essential visits only, that obviously came before we took steps nationwide in relation to social distancing." The government issued a general lockdown order to the nation on March 23.

The March 13 guidance by the government was equivocal, a review of the documents shows. The advisory, reviewed by Reuters, did not impose a ban on visits from family or friends.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 24: Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings arrives home on May 24, 2020 in London, England. On March 31st 2020 Downing Street confirmed to journalists that Dominic Cummings was self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms at his home in North London. Durham police have confirmed that he was actually hundreds of miles away at his parent's house in the city. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 21, 2020: Paramedics and local residents clap their hands outside Chelsea and Westminster Hospital during the weekly 'Clap for our Carers' applause for the NHS and key workers on the front line of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic as the UK's nationwide lockdown continues for the ninth week on 21 May, 2020 in London, England.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 21, 2020: Nurses clap their hands outside Chelsea and Westminster Hospital during the weekly 'Clap for our Carers' applause for the NHS and key workers on the front line of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic as the UK's nationwide lockdown continues for the ninth week on 21 May, 2020 in London, England.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Members of the public participate in a national "clap for carers" to show thanks for the work of Britain's NHS (National Health Service) workers and other frontline medical staff around the country as they battle with the novel coronavirus pandemic, at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London on May 21, 2020. - The British government on on May 21 announced that foreign care workers would be exempt from a charge imposed on migrants to fund the health service, after an outcry sparked by the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP) (Photo by NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the public participate in a national "clap for carers" to show thanks for the work of Britain's NHS (National Health Service) workers and other frontline medical staff around the country as they battle with the novel coronavirus pandemic, at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London on May 21, 2020. - The British government on on May 21 announced that foreign care workers would be exempt from a charge imposed on migrants to fund the health service, after an outcry sparked by the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP) (Photo by NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images)
Staff outside Abbeydale Court Care Home in Hamilton clapping to salute local heroes during Thursday's nationwide Clap for Carers initiative to recognise and support NHS workers and carers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)
An Irish dancer performs outside the Belfast City Hospital in south Belfast, during Thursday's nationwide Clap for Carers initiative to recognise and support NHS workers and carers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Swimmers in the Serpentine in Hyde Park on May 21, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. This week temperatures reached 28 degrees celsius in the UK, as many people enjoy the sunshine despite lockdown still being in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Workers unload a shipment of 120,000 surgical coveralls from China for the protection of NHS workers, from a plane at Bournemouth Airport in southern England on May 21, 2020, during the novel coronavirus pandemic. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday the country will have 25,000 virus tracing staff recruited by June so the country can "make progress" in its strategy to keep easing the nationwide lockdown (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)
Social distancing queue at the home and outdoor store Homebase garden centre under Coronavirus lockdown on 21st May 2020 in Birmingham, England, United Kingdom. DIY shops have been allowed to be open for the last few days and flocks of people have queued at them to buy home and garden goods. Coronavirus or Covid-19 is a new respiratory illness that has not previously been seen in humans. While much or Europe has been placed into lockdown, the UK government has put in place more stringent rules as part of their long term strategy, and in particular 'social distancing'. (photo by Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty Images)
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ENFIELD, ENGLAND - MAY 20: Equipment is disinfected between training sessions during the Tottenham Hotspur training session at Tottenham Hotspur Training Centre on May 20, 2020 in Enfield, England. (Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
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Neonatal Nurse Kirsty Hartley carries premature baby Theo Anderson to his mother Kirsty Anderson in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Lancashire Women and Newborn Centre at Burnley General Hospital in Blackburn, England, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Hannah McKay/Pool Photo via AP)
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Instead, the document from Public Health England, an official agency, advised home providers to "review their visiting policy by asking no one to visit who has suspected Covid-19 or is generally unwell, and by emphasising good hand hygiene for visitors." Balancing those restrictions, it said that care home policies "should also consider the wellbeing of residents, and the positive impact of seeing friends and family."

At a press conference on March 16, Johnson commented that "absolutely, we don't want to see people unnecessarily visiting care homes."

Reuters found no official guidance which made that advice mandatory. The news agency asked 10 Downing Street, Johnson's office, if it could point to any official order that care homes must close to outside visitors, prior to the broader UK lockdown on March 23. A government spokeswoman referred Reuters to the March 13 advice. Asked if there were further instructions to care homes between March 13 and the March 23 general lockdown, the spokeswoman said there were not.

In a statement, the government said it had been "keeping in regular contact with care homes to provide guidance on reducing the spread of infection. We have continued to review and update our guidance, in line with the latest scientific advice."

The government's cautious approach to imposing restrictions was signalled earlier in March by Chris Whitty, the chief medical adviser. At the launch of the government's coronavirus action plan, on March 3, Whitty told journalists that specific advice for care homes would be issued in future, "but one of the things we are keen to avoid ... is doing things too early." He explained that premature action would bring no benefit "but what you do get is a social cost."

A Reuters investigation last week here detailed how the government's focus on shielding hospitals, to prevent emergency wards from being overwhelmed, left care home residents and staff exposed to COVID-19. To free up hospital beds, many patients were discharged into homes for the elderly and vulnerable, many without being tested for the coronavirus that causes the disease.

On May 5, when Reuters initially asked the Department for Health and Social Care when an order was first given to ban care home visits by family and friends, a press officer responded: "There was no order, care providers make their own decisions about visitors."

Later that day, another press officer said the guidance was issued in a document dated April 2 here which said visits should only be made in exceptional circumstances, such as when residents are dying. That guidance was issued 10 days after the national lockdown and 20 days after the earlier, more nuanced advice to care homes.

Joyce Pinfield, who runs two care homes and is on the board of directors at the National Care Association, a body which represents care providers, said she spent time Wednesday after Johnson's comments to parliament trying to find out when the order to lock down care homes was made. She said she found no trace of any order prior to the wider UK lockdown on March 23 and the April 2 instruction closing homes to outside visits, and concluded there hadn't been one.

"The guidance should have been far better," she said. "It was left to care providers to make their own decisions."

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Pictures of the week: May 10 - 16
Cyclists ride under a clear blue sky in Blyth, Northumberland, as highs of 22C are now expected for some parts of the UK by the weekend.
Young deer roam the Deer Park, near Ashford, Kent, during the spring weather and form part of a heard of around 100 fallow deer which were established in the 17th Century. Highs of 22C are now expected for some parts of the UK by the weekend.
The Spencer Lawn Tennis Club in Wandsworth on the second day of the easing of some lockdown restrictions in England as the UK continues in the eighth week to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Early morning sun catches the leaves of a Japanese Maple tree in North Wales, as highs of 22C are now expected for some parts of the UK by the weekend.
Amanda Holden seen leaving the Global Radio Studios in London. (Photo by Brett Cove / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
British swimmer Adam Peaty trains at his house in Loughborough in pool provided by Jacuzzi in partnership with Bedfordshire Hot Tubs to allow our GB Olympic Swimmers to continue to train at home for Tokyo 2021 during the current UK lockdown.
Neals Nurseries in Wandsworth reopens on the first day of the easing of some lockdown restrictions in England as the UK continues in the eighth week to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Golfers, wearing protective masks, push their trollies at Rookwood Golf Club, Horsham, Sussex, after golfers return to play as restrictions are lifted in England, as the UK continues in lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus during the pandemic.
The Spencer Lawn Tennis Club in Wandsworth reopens on the first day of the easing of some lockdown restrictions in England as the UK continues in the eighth week to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
British swimmer Luke Greenbank trains at pool in Ed Baxter's home in Loughborough watched by coach Mel Marshall. The pool was provided by Jacuzzi in partnership with Bedfordshire Hot Tubs to allow GB Olympic Swimmers to continue to train at home for Tokyo 2021 during the current UK lockdown.
Seven police officers attend an incident on the Old Shoreham Road as the UK continues in lockdown to curb the spread of Coronavirus during the pandemic.
A family stop to buy an ice cream from an ice-cream van at Hove Park, near Brighton, as the UK continues in lockdown to curb the spread of Coronavirus during the pandemic.
A general view of people sitting in Hove Park, near Brighton, as the UK continues in lockdown to curb the spread of Coronavirus during the pandemic.
ScotRail staff at Edinburgh's Haymarket Station have decorated a window in tribute to the NHS as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A near empty concourse at Waterloo station with a message of support for the NHS during what would normally be the evening rush hour, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Signs for McDonald's and The NHS on display at Wandsworth roundabout as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A man walks across empty passenger lanes at The Port of Dover in Kent as passengers arriving from France will be exempt from forthcoming UK coronavirus quarantine measures while the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A cyclist passes a mural featuring a skeleton on a bicycle in Edinburgh as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A Morrisons supermarket sign selling unleaded petrol at 99.7p per litre at its store in Belle Vale, Liverpool, after the chain reduced its prices across its UK forecourts.
Sunset over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A British Transport Police officer wears a face mask on the London Underground Central line during what would normally be the evening rush hour, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
People make use of a new widened pavement to aid social distancing on Camden High Street in London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A woman walks between a coronavirus information sign and a light installation near London Bridge, London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
People walk through Broadway Market in London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Uncollected recycling around bins in Harringay, north London. Picture date: Sunday May 10, 2020. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/Empics
An overgrown cemetery in Earlsfield during the UK lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
People take their exercise on Wandsworth Common as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A view of the empty beach at Camber Sands in East Sussex as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A bee taking pollen from alliums in a South London garden as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A man exercising on London Fields, in London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
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Pinfield's view was echoed by Julie Nicholls, the manager of the Appleby Lodge residential home in Cornwall. Nicholls said care home managers were left to make their own decisions about whether to restrict visits. She closed her care home on March 13, the day after the government moved the threat level of the virus to "high" and the prime minister warned the nation to expect to lose loved ones.

Nicholls said she "definitely didn't have any government guidance" to close before the general lockdown ordered by Johnson on March 23. "There was never a formal order," she said.

Opposition MPs have accused Johnson this week of misleading parliament over the government's handling of the coronavirus.

Labour leader, Keir Starmer, confronted the prime minister in parliament on Wednesday with Public Health England guidance for care homes that was in place from February 25 to March 12. This stated, as reported by Reuters on May 5, that "it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected." A government spokesman told Reuters in early May that the advice "accurately reflected the situation at the time when there was a limited risk of the infection getting into a care home."

Johnson replied to Starmer that "it wasn't true that the advice said that."

After the debate, Starmer wrote to Johnson asking him to correct his remark. The prime minister responded that he stood by his comments and accused the Labour leader of selectively and misleadingly quoting from the documents.

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