Care homes were “forgotten” during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and it was wrong for ministers to claim a “ring of protection” was thrown around them, a sector leader has said.
Ministers have blamed a lack of testing capacity for the failure to check whether patients had coronavirus before being sent from hospitals into care homes during the early stages of the pandemic in spring 2020.
However, Boris Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings claimed Matt Hancock lied to the Prime Minister and promised tests would be carried out – a charge denied by the Health Secretary.
Mike Padgham, chairman of the Independent Care Group, which represents providers in York and North Yorkshire, told Sky News it had been a “frightening” time for staff and residents.
Mr Padgham was questioned in relation to the claim made by former Downing Street adviser Mr Cummings to MPs that suggestions care homes were shielded were “complete nonsense”.
“I don’t believe myself there was a ring of protection thrown round us,” Mr Padgham replied.
“In those very early days it was difficult. We were forgotten. We’ve been forgotten over decades. That’s the only issue in social care.
“We weren’t prepared. We weren’t ready. We didn’t have the PPE, we didn’t have the testing.
“It took the Government many, many weeks to actually see what was happening in homes, despite our best efforts and protestations.”
Government documents show there was no requirement to test patients being discharged from hospital into a care home until April 15 2020 as efforts were made to free up beds on wards for Covid-19 patients.
Guidance 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”.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that instructions from the Department of Health and the NHS on March 19 stated that “discharge home today should be the default pathway” to free up beds for the sickest Covid patients.
A leaked email seen by the Sunday Times showed that on March 26, Lisa Lenton, chairwoman at the time of the Care Provider Alliance, said managers were “terrified” that the lack of testing was causing “outbreaks” in homes.
She wrote: “The following action MUST be taken: All people discharged from hospital to social care settings (eg care homes, home care, supported living) MUST be tested before discharge.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi defended the Government’s approach, saying it made the best use of the limited testing capacity available when the pandemic struck and it had put a “protective ring” around care homes.
Asked whether Mr Hancock promised care home residents would be tested before discharge from hospital, Mr Zahawi told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Matt Hancock was very much focused on delivery, I think it’s worth putting this in context … in the sense that in the eye of the storm, we were only able to do 2,000 tests a day. The diagnostics industry was almost non-existent in the UK.”
What Mr Hancock did was to say that “people going into care homes absolutely should be tested and the system, the NHS operationalised that” as testing capacity increased.
Asked why people were sent home without tests, Mr Zahawi said “hindsight is a wonderful thing”, adding: “We can sit here and sort of argue the toss about asymptomatic transmission … and when we really knew about that.
“The whole point is you use every resource available to you, to the best of your ability, to save and to protect as many people as possible.”
Mr Cummings’ evidence to MPs, during which he said Mr Hancock should have been sacked, has highlighted one of the issues which will be closely examined in the promised public inquiry.
There have been more than 36,275 deaths involving Covid-19 in care homes since the pandemic began.
“When the inquiry is held, and we will look at all these things in detail, we will of course examine where we could do better,” Mr Zahawi said.
“But to say that we didn’t deal with them to the best of our capability, with the resources that were available to us, is a mistake, is wrong.”
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat chairwoman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, said: “The Government must urgently look into its failures on care homes instead of kicking the issue into the long grass.
“Nadhim Zahawi’s repeated claims that hindsight is a wonderful thing were deeply insensitive to all those families who have lost loved ones in care homes during the pandemic.
“They need answers now, not empty soundbites and excuses.
“It appears that ministers failed to act when social care leaders raised the alarm at the time. We need an urgent public inquiry to find out why these warnings were ignored and ensure care home residents are not abandoned again.”