Matt Hancock comes under increasing pressure to explain why the government failed to protect nursing home residents at the start of the Covid pandemic, as he sought to save his reputation after Dominic Cummings accused him of lie.
The Health Secretary first claimed that it “was not possible” to test all residents of nursing homes for Covid before they were discharged from hospital last March, as the testing capacity was not was not yet available.
But shadow social affairs minister Liz Kendall said that explanation “just doesn’t match.”
“There were over 530,000 tests done in the UK as of April 20, but they were unable to test 25,000 people released from hospitals to care homes, after we saw it sweeping care homes in Italy, France and America? ” she said. “The reality is that they wanted to free up the beds and they didn’t prioritize the elderly. “
She accused Hancock, who previously claimed to have thrown a “protective ring” around nursing homes, of changing her story to “step out” of her responsibilities.
During seven hours of testimony to MPs on Wednesday, Cummings accused Hancock of promising ministers that all care residents were tested before being sent home, and then lying about it.
Hancock denied the claim and a spokesperson for No 10 said last night: “The Prime Minister has full confidence in the Health Secretary and will continue to work with him to protect public health and save lives.”
The UK has one of the worst coronavirus deaths in the world: more than 127,000 people have died, including more than 40,000 nursing home residents.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) released on Thursday revealed that the transfer of Covid patients from hospital to nursing homes had resulted in 286 deaths. He said 96 nursing home outbreaks were linked to the problem – about 1.6% of all nursing home outbreaks – and the vast majority of these were identified within weeks in March and April 2020.
While PHE said the number of nursing home outbreaks caused by hospitalized patients discharged with the virus was “relatively low”, the “preventive potential … must be fully recognized”.
Many in Westminster believe Hancock may have been saved from a job reshuffle by the Cummings attack, as the PM will not want to appear to be following the incitement of his embittered former aide.
Hancock’s defense at a Downing Street press conference came after Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser repeatedly attacked the health secretary. In particular, he claimed that Hancock lied to the Prime Minister, falsely telling him that residents of health centers would be tested before leaving the hospital.
Hancock did not directly refute this claim at the press conference. He said his “recollection of the events” was that “I made a commitment to put the policy in place, but it took time to build the tests.”
He added, “Then I left and built the testing capacity… then I kept the commitment I made. He also defended his goal of 100,000 tests per day, which Cummings said had skewed government priorities.
Cummings, who was ousted from No.10 in November, said that despite Hancock’s promise in March, testing of inpatients transferred to care homes “has only happened very partially and sporadically” – meaning that Covid “has spread like wildfire inside” them.
Tory MP Dan Poulter said Hancock’s remarks suggested there should be an immediate investigation into Covid-related deaths in nursing homes.