Colleagues of Matt Hancock have flocked to his defence as the Health Secretary came under sustained pressure from the social care industry over the decision to discharge people from hospital into care homes at the start of the pandemic without a coronavirus test.
Mr Hancock told a Downing Street briefing on Thursday that it was not possible to test everyone being sent from hospitals into care homes when coronavirus emerged because the capacity was not available.
And his comments came a day after the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings told MPs that Government claims about putting a shield around care homes were “complete nonsense”.
The head of the UK’s largest charity care home provider said on Friday that the move had been like “putting a live explosive in a box of tinder”.
Sam Monaghan, chief executive of MHA, told Times Radio: “Obviously you had the pressure from the NHS, which we quite understood in terms of real concerns about them being overwhelmed.
“But there’s no way that you can take people into care homes who aren’t tested – it is like putting kind of a live explosive into a box of tinder.”
He added: “Care home residents were seen as somehow an inevitable casualty of this.”
But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng stressed the “difficult situation” Mr Hancock was in while tackling the pandemic.
He told Sky News: “I think what Matt stressed very carefully yesterday was that he was absolutely focused, right from the start of the pandemic, on saving people’s lives.
“He was in a difficult situation as the Health Secretary, in a pandemic, the like of which we hadn’t seen for 100 years. He was under huge pressure.
“And as a Cabinet colleague, I know that he worked really hard and very few people – if anyone – worked as hard as he did and he was very committed to saving lives. Now, he said what he said, I fully believe him but we’ll have an inquiry and that will iron out all these facts.”
Asked on Times Radio whether he should stay in his job, Mr Kwarteng said: “Absolutely, as as a colleague, as I’ve said a number of times on this programme, there hasn’t been anyone in Government that’s been more focused on saving lives, protecting the NHS.
“We’ve put in £92 billion into the NHS during the pandemic, and Matt has been very much at the centre of it.”
A Public Health England (PHE) report has concluded that “hospital-associated seeding accounted for a small proportion of all care home outbreaks”, but said their preventability and the impact on residents, their families and staff “must be acknowledged”.
The study used hospital records to identify care home residents who may have acquired their Covid-19 infection whilst in hospital and looked at subsequent outbreaks in care homes from January 30 to October 12 last year.
Over the period, there were 43,398 care home residents who had a confirmed positive test result for Covid and, of these, 35,760 (82.4%) were involved in an outbreak, equivalent to a total of 5,882 outbreaks.
Some 1.6% (97) of outbreaks were identified as potentially seeded from hospital associated Covid-19 infection, with a total of 806 (1.2%) care home residents with confirmed infection associated with these outbreaks, PHE said.
Most of these outbreaks occurred in March to mid-April before testing was brought in.
The study did not look at asymptomatic cases and does not determine how many people with Covid-19, but who were not tested, were discharged to care homes.
It comes after Tory MPs took an urgent question on the pandemic in the Commons on Thursday as an opportunity to show their support.
Conservative chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee Jeremy Hunt said that, until such evidence is provided, Dominic Cummings’ “allegations should be treated as unproven”.
Fellow Tory Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) said: “Given the gravity of the situation the Government faced at the beginning of the pandemic and considering we now know there was a hugely disruptive force in the form of Dominic Cummings, I’d like to congratulate ministers.”
However, Mr Monaghan pointed out that, of the 40,000 people who died in the first wave of coronavirus, half had been care homes residents.
“That just highlights that there was no support, and that we were abandoned as a sector during that first wave,” he said.
Mr Cummings also claimed the Prime Minister was furious to discover that untested patients had been discharged to care homes, alleging that Mr Hancock had told them both that people being discharged would be tested.
But when asked if he had told the Prime Minister and Mr Cummings that everyone going from hospitals to care homes would be tested, Mr Hancock said: “My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.
“I then went away and built the testing capacity for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of uses, including this one, and then delivered on the commitment that I made.”
The Government told care homes to isolate anyone who was known to be Covid-19 positive in their own room, despite some care home leaders having since said that they were not set up for this.
Allowing patients to be discharged to care homes also meant people who were asymptomatic were in a position to spread the virus.
Government documents show there was no requirement to test patients being discharged from hospital into a care home until April 15 2020.
Guidance dated April 2 said people who were Covid-19 positive could be discharged to care homes with the recommendation that they were isolated.
It added: “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”
Guidance 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”.