Matt Hancock has defended the much-criticised policy of discharging hospital patients into care homes without testing them for Covid, saying more people would have died if they had remained on wards.
The former health secretary said that in March 2020, when tests were in short supply, there was no viable alternative to the discharge policy, and that many vulnerable people would have caught Covid in hospital if they had stayed there, as well as taking up vitally needed beds.
Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said in written evidence to the Covid Inquiry that the benefits of discharging patients to care homes outweighed the disadvantages.
Families of those who died in care homes said the Government had “failed to prioritise protecting our most vulnerable”.
More than 45,000 people in care homes died from or with Covid. Until April 15 2020 Government policy allowed for hospital patients medically fit for discharge to be sent to care homes without having to be tested for Covid.
Public Health England warned in February 2020 that elderly hospital patients should not be discharged into care homes, and the Office for National Statistics reported in July 2020 that doing so had been an “important source” of infection.
Mr Hancock said that until mid-April 2020 there were not enough tests available to be able to screen all patients being discharged, and that evidence of asymptomatic transmission of the virus was not concrete at that stage.
‘Every decision was a choice between difficult options’
He told the inquiry: “The only choice is between bad options here, I fear that if we had left those patients in hospital, those who were medically fit to discharge, there is a high likelihood that more would have caught Covid and the problem could have been bigger.
“I have gone over and over in my head the decisions that we took, and save for the point about asymptomatic transmission, every decision was a choice between difficult options, and nobody has yet brought to me a solution to this problem that even with hindsight would have resulted in more lives saved. If there is one, I want to know about it because it’s crucial that we learn these lessons for the future.”
He said evidence showed that most infections in care homes came from visitors and staff, not from hospital discharges.
Charlie Williams, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said: “The issue of transmission into care homes should have been a priority the moment news broke of Covid-19.
“Indeed, other countries like South Korea ramped up their testing and avoided this problem despite developing diagnostic testing on the same day as us in January 2020. Instead, we failed to prioritise protecting our most vulnerable, and it cost many thousands of lives like my Dad’s. We cannot get this wrong again if another pandemic strikes.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said it was now “beyond doubt that the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes without knowing their Covid status or whether they were infectious was a big mistake, one that contributed to the enormous surge of death and serious illness affecting care home residents…against this tragic context one is bound to conclude that there had to have been a better way”.
‘Discharge policy was prudent’
In written evidence to the inquiry, Sir Chris said that the discharge policy had been “prudent” because it prevented more people catching Covid in hospital and it freed up beds for Covid patients who desperately needed them, therefore “doing nothing in my view carried the greater risks”.
Mr Hancock also revealed that his mother is still suffering from long Covid.
He said: “After the first peak I was acutely aware of it, not least because members of my family were affected by long Covid, including my mother, who still attends a long Covid clinic. So it was very close to my heart.”
In his written witness statement, Mr Hancock said Boris Johnson had apologised to him for appointing Dominic Cummings as his chief adviser “and for the damage he did to the response to Covid-19”.
Mr Cummings has repeatedly accused Mr Hancock of being a liar and in return Mr Hancock has accused Mr Cummings of creating a “culture of fear” in Number 10 during the pandemic.
WhatsApp messages shown to the inquiry on Friday showed that Rishi Sunak, the then chancellor, wanted to prioritise keeping shops open over secondary schools.
On October 30 2020 Mr Hancock and Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, discussed potential restrictions two weeks after the tier system of local restrictions was introduced and days before the second national lockdown was announced on November 5 2020.
Mr Case said Mr Sunak was “relatively open” on the question of whether to impose regional or national restrictions but: “His only question (and a fair one) is about non-essential retail - where obviously we have no evidence of transmission. He thinks better to do something in secondary schools (where we know transmission takes place) instead of closing shops (where we know it doesn’t seem to).”
Mr Hancock also said it was important that “those who make the rules abide by them” as Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, raised the subject of his lockdown-breaking affair with his aide Gina Coladangelo.
Mr Hancock resigned as health secretary in June 2021 after CCTV footage emerged of him kissing Ms Coladangelo in his office. Both were married at the time.
Mr Keith said: “I’m sure you acknowledge the incredible offence and upset that was caused by that revelation. In terms of the impact on public confidence, there were a number of transgressions on public life.
“Overall do you think those transgressions had an effect on the public’s propensity to adhere to rules?”
Mr Hancock replied: “Well, what I do say is that the lesson for the future is very clear and it is important that those who make the rules abide by them and I resigned in order to take accountability for my failure to do that.”