In Depth

Reaction: government said care homes were safe despite experts’ Covid-19 warnings

Ministers under fire for telling sector that elderly residents were ‘very unlikely’ to be infected

Downing Street is under pressure to explain why the government failed to warn the care sector about the risks of Covid-19, as new figures reveal that a quarter of deaths in UK care homes in the past two months were linked to the virus.

According to Office for National Statistics data for March and April, care homes in England and Wales recorded a total of 45,899 deaths, of which 12,526 (27%) mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate.

The publication of the figures coincides with reports that ministers were warned of a serious risk of “sustained transmission” of coronavirus through care homes two weeks before the government advised that it was “very unlikely” elderly residents would be infected.

According to The Times, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling committee (SPI-M) sent a briefing to the government’s panel of scientific advisors on 10 February stating: “It is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will become established in the coming weeks.”

Yet on 25 February, Public Health England (PHE) told the care sector that “there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community”.

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Labour’s shadow care minister Liz Kendall said: “Ministers deny they were slow to tackle the virus in care homes, and say they acted as soon as they had advice, but according to this document there were clear warnings that community transmission was happening as early as February.”

Earlier this week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the suggestion the care sector was “let down” by the government was “unfair”.

This view is not shared by Martin Green, chief executive of charity Care England, who told the Financial Times that “it was a mistake not to prioritise care homes from the start. We knew the 430,000 people in care homes included some of the most vulnerable people.”

Allowing so many care home residents to die amounts to nothing less than “culpable neglect”, says an editorial in The Guardian.

“Given the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the elderly, it was surely legitimate to expect a new focus and grip from Westminster as the virus took hold,” the newspaper argues. “Instead, care homes continue to lack basic essentials as the disease sweeps through a vulnerable elderly population of 410,000.”

The Financial Times agrees, saying that the “frail residents of the country’s 11,300 care homes have emerged as the hidden victims of an overwhelmed, underprepared system plagued by shifting guidelines that some experts fear have had lethal consequences”.

According to The Times’ columnist Philip Collins, “this scandal has been a long time coming, which makes it all the worse… Social care, which is buried away in local government rather than in the sanctuary of the NHS, suffered the brunt of austerity.”

“The Conservative Party has wasted a lot of time on a lot of nonsense, especially since 2015,” he concludes. “It cannot escape censure for what is happening now.”

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