Jeremy Hunt today condemned the failure to deploy coronavirus tests on patients discharged into care homes.
The former health secretary said an ‘over-focus’ on the risk of a flu pandemic meant the government had not thought about the need for wide-scale screening.
And he insisted checks on patients sent back to care homes was an obvious ‘thing that needed to happen’.
NHS chiefs have revealed that it was only on April 15 – after the UK outbreak peaked – that enough capacity was in place to test ‘systematically’ everyone discharged from hospital. However, they say only a ‘very small number’ of asymptomatic patients would have been sent to social care without being checked.
The criticism came after Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer confronted Boris Johnson at PMQs over the handling of the crisis.
The latest figures suggest care home deaths accounted for some 40 per cent of coronavirus-related fatalities registered in England and Wales in the week ending May 1. Some studies have estimated 22,000 residents might have died.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured today) said an ‘over-focus’ on the risk of a flu pandemic meant the government had not thought about the need for wide-scale screening
Office for National Statistics data showed yesterday that 8,315 people have died in care homes in England and Wales with coronavirus listed on their death certificate. But researchers at the London School of Economics suggest this is only around 41 per cent of the total, which could be more like 22,000
Mr Johnson admitted the death toll was ‘too high’ as he pledged £600million for care homes for infection control.
But Sir Keir quoted from official guidance in place until mid-March, suggesting it was ‘very unlikely’ care home residents would become infected with Covid-19.
Mr Johnson accused the opposition leader of ‘selectively and misleadingly’ ciiting the document after the bruising exchanges.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick admitted the situation in care homes was ‘absolutely terrible’ and a ‘huge challenge’.
‘I don’t deny that what is happening in care homes is absolutely terrible. It’s a huge challenge,’ he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
‘But we are trying to put as much support as we can around care homes.’
Health minister Edward Argar rejected the idea that the government had neglected the care sector, but admitted it still needs to ‘make available’ testing capacity so all residents and staff can get checked.
Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it is ‘pretty clear now’ that community testing should not have been abandoned on March 12.
The former health secretary said: ‘I think it’s very important not to finger point at the individuals, and I think the Government is getting excellent scientific advice.
‘But actually, to ask why it is that Sage, the Government’s scientific advisory committee, didn’t model the South Korean test, track and trace approach that we are now adopting right at the beginning?
‘The Government was given two very extreme options, the sort of extreme lockdown we’re just coming out of, or kind of mitigated herd immunity.
‘And that middle way, the South Korean route, wasn’t modelled.’
Mr Hunt said this is because there is ‘too much secrecy’ in Sage, adding: ‘I think that scrutiny would have meant that those kind of oversights would not have been made and the Government would have got better advice.’
Mr Hunt, now chair of the Health Select Committee, said ministers had not been thinking about the importance of testing prior to the coronavirus crisis due to an ‘over-focus’ on pandemic flu.
‘I think the practical thing that we can all see needed to have happened was to make sure that everyone discharged from hospitals into care homes was tested for Covid before they were sent to a care home,’ he said.
‘But because we didn’t have that testing capacity at the time, it wasn’t possible to do that.
‘In retrospect, and I have responsibility for this as someone who was health secretary for six years, because we were over-focussed on pandemic flu, and not on pandemic SARS-like viruses, we haven’t been thinking for some time about the importance of testing.
‘And had we done that, and that’s why I think transparency over scientific advice is so important, then maybe some of these things could have been avoided.’
But in a round of interviews, Mr Argar said: ‘I completely refute the assertion that it was bad advice, or it was poor advice.
‘We have some of the best scientists in the world modelling this and giving us the advice.’
He added: ‘If you think back to February or March, every day we were learning, and scientists were learning, something new about how it behaved and that it didn’t always behave exactly the same way in different countries.
‘The second point is that, of course, Italy was, as we recognised, ahead of us in terms of the curve and that community transmission. They did this at a point where they had, and it was shown they had, community transmission and that was one of the reasons that caused them to make that change.
‘We didn’t at that point, and that’s why when we did have the evidence of that we then made the appropriate changes.’
However, he conceded there is more to do to get routine testing in care homes.
‘There is still some capacity there that we need to put in… make available, I should say, to care homes to make sure everyone can access it quickly,’ he said.
‘To make sure they get their results back quickly so they know when they have someone who didn’t test negative – that’s fine.
‘Or when they have someone who has tested positive, they know to use that… if they are accepting a discharge back to the care home, they know to put in place those isolation rules and those isolation procedures.
Meanwhile, it has been claimed that ministers were warned two years ago that care homes were not prepared for a pandemic.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Boris Johnson clashed in Parliament yesterday over the handling of coronavirus in care homes
Council social care directors called for bolstered plans to provide PPE, and better infection control systems.
The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) told the Guardian it prepared a series of reports as part of government planning for a flu pandemic.
But it said: ‘We are not aware of whether government departments picked up on any of the recommendations set out.’
The PM and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer engaged in a war of words over the Government’s handling of coronavirus in care homes.
Mr Johnson accused the opposition leader of ‘selectively and misleadingly’ quoting from official guidance which said in March that it was ‘very unlikely’ care home residents would become infected with Covid-19.
Sir Keir told MPs the Government had been ‘too slow to protect people in care homes’ and referred to official advice in place until March 12, which said it was ‘very unlikely’ that those receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.
The Labour leader insisted his interpretation of the Government guidance had been correct.