Care minister Helen Whately was blasted today for sniggering in a car crash TV interview as it was revealed a ‘hidden epidemic’ of coronavirus in nursing and old-people’s homes may have cost 4,000 lives.
She was taken to task by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain as he grilled her over an exclusive report in the Daily Mail that deaths in care facilities are being hugely under-reported because of a lack of testing.
The latest report from the Office for National Statistics says the virus killed 217 care home residents in England and Wales in the two weeks up to April 3.
But industry figures say the true count is much higher – potentially 4,000 since the outbreak started.
GPs are also sometimes reluctant to write Covid-19 on death certificates and figures from care homes are not included in the official daily toll.
Mrs Whately, 43, the MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, was sent out to face the media this morning as anger and questions increased over the vulnerability of care home residents amid a lack of testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff.
She has only been the Social Care Minister since February, when she was appointed in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle.
Appearing on GMB she insisted that the Government has been working hard to tackle the crisis, but Piers insisted she answer questions about deaths in care homes, telling her he expected her to be working hard.
He asked: ‘Is it true that 4,000 people have died in care home? Yes or no?’
The Social Care Minister denied that she had been laughing during the interview on today’s Good Morning Britain
She said her laughter was a reaction to him showing her the front page of the newspaper, when she was unable to see him due to not having a screen visible showing the GMB host.
The doctors’ daughter who entered politics to improve the NHS
In another life Helen Whately could have been on the other side of the coronavirus debate – directly helping patients in hospital.
The mother of three, 43, has been the MP for the affluent seat of Faversham and Mid Kent since the 2015 election.
But her parents are both doctors and she came close to following in their footsteps.
However, in her maiden Commons’ speech in 2015 she revealed her upbringing had led her to a different path.
‘I come from a family of doctors, and I nearly followed in their footsteps, but time spent in hospitals as a teenager—not because I was ill; I just did lots of work experience—triggered a different ambition,’ she said.
‘I wanted to improve the National Health Service itself. After a stint in telecoms, I spent nearly a decade working in healthcare.’
Mrs Whately was tipped in 2008 as a rising Tory star by society journal Tatler.
After studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford she worked as a management consultant and an advisor to shadow culture secretary Hugo Swire she contested Kingston and Surbiton in 2010, losing heavily to current Lib Dem acting leader Ed Davey.
She was chosen for her Kent seat on an all-female shortlist for 2015 as the incumbent Hugh Robertson stepped down.
She was briefly made a deputy chairwoman of the Conservative Party in the dying days of Theresa May’s administration last year, before becoming a junior minister at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last September.
In February this year she was promoted to Social care Minister, as the coronavirus outbreak began to become a global concern.
She has been married to Marcus since 2005.
The Social Care Minister then thanked him for acknowledging what the government is doing and said the work was ‘really important’.
Piers interrupted to say tell her that it was more important that 4,000 people have died, only for the Minister to start laughing. The host said: ‘Why are you laughing? What do you find funny about this?’
She said: ‘I don’t think it’s funny in the slightest.’
He responded: ‘Well why do you keep laughing then?’
‘I’m not laughing at all,’ she said.
Piers replied: ‘I literally just asked you is it true that 4,000 elderly people have died in hosp and all you can do is laugh what’s the matter with you?’
As she continued to insist she wasn’t laughing and asked Piers not to suggest she had been, he said: ‘We literally just saw you.’
But she said her laughter was a reaction to him showing her the front page of the newspaper, when she was unable to see him due to not having a screen visible showing the GMB host.
The interview sparked a row on social media between those who supported Mr Morgan and those saying he had been unfair.
Mal Smith wrote: ‘Care Minister? This gets more Orwellian every day, she’s the Minister of Couldn’t Care Less.’
And Terence West added: ‘Shocking that a government minister laughs and smirks rather than answers important questions, after all you are a public servant being paid for with tax payers money!’
But Diane Key was among those who thought differently, saying: ‘Piers went over the top with this interview!’
A spokeswoman for Ofcom said the regulator has received 643 complaints about the interview.
Later Mr Morgan wrote on Twitter: ‘Apparently some people found my interview with Care minister @Helen-Whately today ‘uncomfortable’.
‘For perspective, it probably wasn’t quite as ‘uncomfortable’ as what our under-protected NHS & carer frontline heroes are going through.’
Campaigners and MPs warned yesterday of an ‘unfolding horror’ that could end up with tens of thousands of forgotten victims.
Ministers face urgent calls to get a grip and get virus tests for all staff and residents with symptoms, more protection gear and a Cabinet minister to deal with the crisis.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night pledged action on testing and is also expected to outline a plan to address the crisis in a social care strategy.
All care home residents and staff with symptoms of Covid-19 are to be tested as the Government faces a backlash over its handling of the growing crisis.
In a separate interview Mrs Whately told BBC Breakfast: ‘We have been doing everything that we can to protect those really vulnerable people living in care homes or receiving care at home.
The interview sparked a row on social media between those who supported Mr Morgan and those saying he had been unfair
‘From the moment it looked like coronavirus was coming our way… we have been working really hard to do whatever we can to protect those receiving care from this truly awful, horrible illness.’
She added it had been ‘harder to get heard’ on social care issues than for the NHS and said the Government had ‘taken huge steps to get PPE out to the care sector’.
Care home operators complain they are being overlooked, with desperate short – ages of testing and staff safety equipment making it extremely hard to stop the dis – ease ravaging their sites.
Jeremy Richardson, chief executive of Four Seasons, which has 191 care homes across the UK, told the Guardian that the official figures ‘materially understated’ the crisis, adding: ‘From colleagues in the sector and in Four Seasons’ experience, it is closer to 60 per cent (infection rate).’
It came as one care home lost a fifth of it’s residents and the manager says she is fighting a losing battle against the deadly pandemic.
Anita Peet, who is in charge of Wren Hall Nursing Home has criticised health chiefs for their lack of help in fighting the virus.
Ten residents died at the weekend from the virus, and a further 15 are currently in isolation.
She told The Sun: ‘We are just having deaths all the time.
‘Are people dispensable? It feels as if people are not worth saving. But that is certainly not how we feel.’
‘It’s getting harder and harder every day. We’re fighting a losing battle.
‘It is awful that people are not being able to prepare for this, to spend quality time with loved ones. It is making the whole situation more challenging.’
The care home has already paid out £9,000 for protective equipment, and getting a steady supply of PPE equipment was difficult.
She added: ”The first delivery (from the government) was 160 masks. I told them we were using 312 a day. I waited four days and got 400. The supply chain is completely useless.’
Ministers are coming under pressure to include care home deaths in the daily figures.
Mr Sunak and public health officials faced a string of questions over the issue at a press briefing last night.
Organisations including the Alzheimer’s Society and Care England, which represents social care organisations, believe the care home death toll is being hugely under-played by a lack of tests.