The Government did everything it could to minimise Covid transmission, the Prime Minister has insisted, as he faced questions on why people were discharged from hospital to care homes with no test.
Boris Johnson said that what happened in care homes last year “was tragic” as he responded to media questions following a claim by his former top aide Dominic Cummings that the idea that a protective shield was thrown around care homes was “nonsense”.
Mr Johnson told reporters: “Of course what happened in care homes was tragic.
“We did everything we could to protect the NHS, to minimise transmission with the knowledge that we had.
“One thing that we did not know at the beginning of the pandemic – don’t forget, we did not know at the beginning of the pandemic quite the way in which the virus could be transmitted asymptomatically and that was one of the reasons that we had some of the problems that we saw in care homes.”
It comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock repeatedly dodged questions on whether he signed off on the policy for people not to be tested before being discharged early on in the pandemic.
Government documents show there was no requirement to test patients being discharged from hospital into a care home until April 15 2020.
Guidance to care homes dated April 2 said people who were Covid-19 positive could be discharged to care homes and recommended they were isolated.
It added that: “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”
Guidance that was in place until March 13 further stated that community transmission was so low it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”.
In the Commons on Thursday, Labour MP Barbara Keeley pressed Mr Hancock on what he knew about care home testing.
Mr Cummings told MPs on Wednesday that the Prime Minister was furious to discover in April 2020 that untested patients had been discharged to care homes, adding that Mr Hancock had told him they would be tested.
Ms Keeley said: “Did he know that the discharge process did not require testing and did he sign off this policy, which led to thousands of avoidable deaths of vulnerable people and many deaths of care staff?”
Mr Hancock replied: “The challenge is we had to build testing capacity, and at that time of course I was focused on protecting people in care homes and in building that testing capacity so that we had the daily tests to be able to ensure that availability was more widespread.”
Mr Hancock did not take the opportunity to apologise to the families of those who died in care homes when asked to by Liberal Democrat Munira Wilson.
She told the Commons: “Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them we sent people with Covid back to the care homes. These were the words of the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser yesterday.
“If true, this is one of the biggest scandals and tragedies of the pandemic. So can the Secretary of State please confirm when testing on discharge from hospitals into care homes was routinely offered and will he apologise to the tens of thousands of bereaved family members whose relatives died in care homes?”
Mr Hancock responded: “It has been an incredibly difficult time for those who work in and live in care homes throughout this pandemic. That’s been true across the world.
“I want to pay tribute to the staff who work in social care who have done so much.
“It was of course a difficult challenge, especially at the start when many characteristics of this virus were unknown, and as I’ve answered many times in this House we have published the full details of the approach that we take and we took, and we worked with the care home sector as much as possible to keep people safe and we followed the clinical advice on the appropriate way forward.”
In April 2020, Mr Hancock insisted that hospital patients were discharged to care homes at a time when community transmission of Covid-19 was low.
There have been 36,275 deaths involving Covid-19 in care homes since the pandemic began, according to the latest figures from the UK’s statistics agencies.
Last July, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told MPs on the Commons Health and Social Care Committee that ministers and experts failed to recognise that care home residents were at risk from workers moving between homes and spreading Covid-19.
He said that, in retrospect, some risk factors were obvious but had not been recognised earlier on in the pandemic.
These included workers moving between homes and some staff not being paid sick leave, which meant they came into work while ill, he said.