Matt Hancock: the current WhatsApp controversy makes it seem he only considered testing people in care homes from April 14, 2020 – but existing information shows he had been ruling it out for around two months (since February) despite mounting deaths.
No wonder Isabel Oakeshott was so liverish on Politics Live – she was about to become the centre of a new Covid-19 controversy.
Ms Oakeshott is the person who leaked 100,000 Matt Hancock WhatsApp messages that seem to suggest he has not been altogether truthful about government plans for Covid-19 testing in care homes during 2020. She had access to them while “helping” him write his memoir.
Spokespeople for Hancock have said the messages have been doctored to present a false impression.
But my recollection is that the controversy at the time had little to do with what these messages say. I made my point on Twitter as follows:
You can read the relevant background information in these Vox Political articles from 2020:
Coronavirus deaths: ‘sorry’ is the hardest word for Hancock (April 29, 2020)
Is Johnson guilty of human rights abuses over coronavirus care home deaths? Could be! (May 3, 2020)
Care home deaths cover-up suggests Johnson and Hancock are guilty as sin (May 15, 2020)
If Tories really regret not testing for Covid-19 in care homes – is it because they were caught? (May 20, 2020)
Why didn’t Matt Hancock send vulnerable Covid-19 sufferers to Nightingale hospitals rather than care homes? (May 22, 2020)
Hancock denies claim about Covid-testing care home residents. What DID he mean, then? (June 6, 2020)
Hancock’s excuse for care home deaths changes with the wind – but doesn’t change the fact that HE LIED TO US (June 10, 2020)
Doctor launches court case against Tories over Covid-19 care home death of her dad (June 14, 2020)
Is Matt Hancock denying care homes Covid-19 tests to deliberately harm residents? (August 30, 2020)
So there you have it. Despite advice from SAGE in February 2020 that Covid-19 was already being transmitted between people in the community, Hancock put out official guidance saying there was no such transmission and nobody in a care home was likely to be infected.
Care home staff who moved from one home to another were also not tested, meaning they were able to catch the disease from patients at one home and transmit it to those at any others they visited.
This remained official advice until March 12, 2020, despite the fact that care homes had been recording deaths related to Covid-19 from March 2 onwards – 10 days previously.
The UK only went into lockdown on March 23.
Care homes did not start testing for the disease until April 15 (of people leaving hospital), and regular tests of all staff and residents did not start until July.
Now check this against the current story (I’ll use the BBC version as the Telegraph, which broke this story, is behind a paywall):
WhatsApp messages leaked to the Daily Telegraph newspaper suggest Mr Hancock was told in April 2020 there should be “testing of all going into care homes”.
Government guidance later mandated tests only for those leaving hospital.
In one message, dated 14 April, Mr Hancock reportedly told aides that Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medial officer for England, had conducted an “evidence review” and recommended “testing of all going into care homes, and segregation whilst awaiting result”.
The message came a day before the publication of Covid-19: Our Action Plan for Adult Social Care, a government document setting out plans to keep the care system functioning during the pandemic.
Mr Hancock said the advice represented a “good positive step” and that “we must put into the doc”, to which an aide responded that he had sent the request “to action”.
But later the same day, Mr Hancock messaged again saying he would rather “leave out” a commitment to test everyone entering care homes from the community and “just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital”.
“I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters,” he said.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said this followed an operational meeting, where he was advised it was not possible to test everyone entering care homes.
When the care plan was published on 15 April, it said the government would “institute a policy of testing all residents prior to admission to care homes”, but that that would “begin with all those being discharged from hospital”.
It said only that it would “move to” a policy of testing everyone entering care homes from the community.
From March 2020 to January 2022, there were 43,256 deaths involving Covid-19 in care homes in England, according to the Office for National Statistics.
There’s a big discrepancy, isn’t there?
The WhatsApp messages have it that Hancock was only advised to start testing everybody going into care homes on April 14.
But in fact, SAGE had warned him in February – two months previously – that Covid-19 was already being transmitted in the community, and it is clear that community transmission was considered likely to cause infections within care homes from the government advice that was published on February 25.
And death figures from care homes clearly showed that Covid-19 had caused deaths there from March 2 onwards, so Hancock had no reason to believe that these homes were unaffected.
But he waited nearly two months before doing anything.
The lack of testing kits in sufficient numbers has been blamed for the failure to test everybody who needed it – but this is not an acceptable response. The government had known of the threat since late 2019 but had not bothered to take timely action, and this is the reason too few testing kits were available.
And more than 43,000 people died.
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