The Government sacrificed care home residents in favour of mass testing
Overnight, The Telegraph published an investigation dubbed the Lockdown Files. It is comprised of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages, totalling 2.3 million words, sent between the then-health secretary, Matt Hancock, and other ministers and officials at the height of the pandemic.
The paper obtained the messages from Isabel Oakeshott, co-author of Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries, with whom the minister had shared the messages for the purpose of writing the book. Oakeshott says she felt it was in the public interest to release this sensational cache of private communications now because she fears that the recently launched official government Covid-19 Inquiry, which I wrote about yesterday, risks becoming a colossal whitewash. Besides, the Inquiry could take years to conclude. “We absolutely cannot wait any longer for answers,” she says.
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The messages provide an unrivalled behind-the-scenes insight into some of the key decisions that were taken at the beginning of the pandemic — and their disastrous outcomes. The bulk of the first messages released focus on one of the most crucial issues of the entire pandemic management, in the UK and elsewhere: the handling of care homes, particularly during the first wave.
In the first two years of the pandemic, there were more than 40,000 Covid deaths in care homes across England and Wales — that’s around 30% of all Covid deaths, despite the fact that care home residents account for only around 5% of the total population aged 65 or more. It’s a colossal tragedy, which many families believe could have been avoided if ministers had made the right decisions at the start of the crisis.
Much of the blame has been attributed to guidance issued in spring 2020 which ordered NHS hospitals to “urgently discharge” all patients “who are medically fit to leave” in order to free up beds. Against the Chief Medical Officer’s advice, the Government also told care homes that “negative tests are not required before transfers”, and that patients without Covid symptoms or a positive test could be safely cared for “as normal”. Testing of all care home staff was ruled out as well. Testing was subsequently made mandatory for those entering care homes from hospital, but not for those coming from the community. Regular testing wasn’t introduced until July, by which time four in every 10 care homes had experienced an outbreak.
It’s now clear that this led to tens of thousands of care home residents getting infected and dying — as Hancock himself would later tell the Health and Social Care Committee. The reason he gave for refusing to approve the blanket testing for care home admissions, as revealed by the WhatsApp conversations, is astonishing: he was afraid it could “get in the way” of his self-imposed and widely publicised target of 100,000 Covid tests per day. In other words, the targeted testing of people coming into contact with the most vulnerable, high-risk group of all — care home residents — was sacrificed in favour of what was largely a propaganda sting: the mass testing of the general population, most of whom were never at risk from Covid in the first place.
The story exemplifies everything that was wrong in the all-of-society lockdown approach. We were told that it was a test of solidarity, that it was the only way to “save lives” and protect the most vulnerable. As it turns out, it was the exact opposite of that: while the Government was busy keeping healthy people from leaving their homes, and forcing them to get tested on a regular basis, it was all but abandoning those it should have protected — the elderly. And this despite the Government knowing full well that Covid was almost exclusively a serious threat for elderly people and those with underlying health risk conditions, as it noted in its coronavirus action plan that was published on March 3, 2020.
In other words, a huge number of Covid deaths, particularly in the first wave, weren’t caused by the virus itself, and certainly weren’t caused by the decision not to lock down sooner. They were in fact caused by the decision to abandon the kind of focused protection of at-risk groups championed by all pre-2020 pandemic plans, in favour of a completely untried and untested model. This model didn’t just have a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods, physical and mental health, education, and civil and democratic rights. It also failed disastrously in achieving the one thing it was supposed to achieve, as the Lockdown Files make clear: reducing Covid deaths. We must demand that those responsible for this peacetime catastrophe are held accountable.