Editorial: The health secretary has to answer questions about what happened in care homes during the pandemic – and the PM can’t use him as a barrier against criticism
Pressure is rightly growing on Matt Hancock, who holds the title of secretary of state for health and social care but faces mounting allegations he prioritised hospitals and neglected care homes in the early stages of the pandemic.
Some of the claims by Dominic Cummings in his marathon appearance before MPs last week were self-serving, but one in particular rings true: that Mr Hancock’s assertion that he threw a “protective shield” around care homes from the outset was “complete nonsense”. Indeed, the Department of Health and Social Care’s guidance to hospitals on 19 March last year urged them to free up beds for Covid sufferers by discharging patients without testing them for the virus. About 25,000 untested patients were sent to care homes between 17 March and 25 April, when the guidance was changed to say they should be tested first.
Although Public Health England suggests only a small proportion of all care home outbreaks were caused by hospital discharges, that does not absolve the government from responsibility; Mr Hancock was slow to urge the care sector not to use agency workers who switch between different homes. On both testing and agency staff, the damage was done before the official advice was changed.