Richard North, 28/05/2021  

Although it was a bit of a chore, I'm glad I spent the time on Wednesday watching the whole of the Cummings evidence to the joint Science and Technology and Health and Social Care Committees. The narratives offered by the legacy media do not do justice to the proceedings.

No more so is this evident than in the running controversy over care homes and the accusation that untested people in hospitals were sent back into care homes where the infected others.

But, while Cummings is taking the flak for supposedly making that claim, reference to the video (13:01) shows that it was actually committee members, the Labour MP Graham Stringer (pictured, right) who made the accusation. This is my transcript of his input:
One of the reasons why the death figures in England were so high was that untested people were sent back into care homes, and they themselves got poorly and infected other people in those care homes, and very large number of people died. Do you have any insight as to how that decision was taken, and was No 10 involved in that decision or was it entirely a Health Department decision?
And here is Cummings's response, in full:
So that was one of the other things that we found shocking. That when we realised in April that this had happened, the prime minister said a less polite version of: "What on earth are you telling me?" Anyway, he came back after being ill: "What on earth has happened with all these people in care homes? Hancock told us in the Cabinet Room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes. What they hell happened?

We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to care homes. We only subsequently found out that that hadn't happened. Now all the government rhetoric was "we put a shield round care homes and blah, blah". It was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.
The point that seems to be being lost at the moment is that Cummings hardly needed to make the accusation, and indeed he didn't. This has been known and well documented since last year, breaking into the public domain shortly after 15 May when Hancock made his now infamous claim.

At the time, the death rate in care homes was already the subject of a major controversy, with Johnson under attack in parliament, making claims which were quickly disproved. Thus, Hancock himself raised the issue in the evening No 10 press briefing, saying:
I want to tell you what we've been doing to protect people in care homes throughout the crisis. If we start with the data, in April, 31,203 people died in care homes, of whom 11,560 died with Coronavirus. I'm grateful to the ONS for having responded to the requests to put extra resources into understanding, and measuring all this. Right from the start it's been clear that this horrible virus affects older people most. Right from the start, we've tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes. We set out our first advice in February, and as the virus grew, we strengthened it throughout. We've made sure that care homes have the resources they need to control the spread of infection...
Not least of the media sources to raise the issue had been the Telegraph which, three weeks earlier had run a piece with this headline: "Care homes' soaring death rate blamed on 'reckless' order to take back Covid-19 patients". The sub-heading read: "The number of Covid-19 deaths in care homes was estimated by Care England to have reached 7,500 a week ago".

The paper had actually got hold of "two damning policy documents" published on 19 March and 2 April, in which officials told NHS hospitals to transfer any patients who no longer required hospital level treatment, and set out a blueprint for care homes to accept patients with Covid-19 or who had not even been tested.

As I remarked at the time on the blog, the documents were indeed damning. The first on the two effectively required the hospital service to turf out 15,000 patients to make room for the expected "surge" of Covid-19 patients, anticipating that about half of these would need support from health and/or social care.

The peremptory tone of the "discharge requirement" (for that was the document's title) was quite chilling. Hospitals were told that patients who met the discharge criteria had to be transferred from wards within one hour of decisions being made that they should leave, to designated discharge areas. It then said that discharge from hospital "should happen as soon after that as possible, normally within two hours".

As to the second document, this was headed: "Admission and Care of Residents during COVID-19 Incident in a Care Home". And it made the unrealistic and, bluntly, scurrilous assertion that patients with Covid-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, could be safely cared for in a care home, on the basis of guidance set out in the document.

There was also a third document, published on 15 April, a DH document headed: "COVID-19: Our Action Plan for Adult Social Care". On testing, nearly a full month after the NHS discharge instruction, it stated:
We are mindful that some care providers are concerned about being able to effectively isolate COVID-positive residents, and we are determined to make sure discharges into nursing or social care do not put residents currently in those settings at risk. We can now confirm we will move to institute a policy of testing all residents prior to admission to care homes. This will begin with all those being discharged from hospital and the NHS will have a responsibility for testing these specific patients, in advance of timely discharge. Where a test result is still awaited, the patient will be discharged and pending the result, isolated in the same way as a COVID-positive patient will be.
These three official documents make it crystal clear that, at the very least until mid-April there was an enforced policy of transferring patients to care homes, and that there was no testing programme in place.

Those who wanted to know this either knew or could have found out. Those who missed the Telegraph report could have picked it up from Reuters on 5 May last year, a report which quotes Jeremy Hunt.

It tells us that, on 25 February, Public Health England stated it "remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected". This guidance, Reuters says, was widely reproduced on care home websites and stayed in force until 13 March. It meant that few care homes restricted visits and few families withdrew their relatives from homes. No plan was put in place for testing staff (or residents).

Last Wednesday therefore, all Cummings was doing – as he was asked to do – was shed light on the decision-making. On this issue, he didn't need to call Hancock a liar.

This had been done much earlier, on 16 May, the day after the health secretary's statement. And, on 4 June, the daughter of an 88-year-old man who died in a care home was demanding that Hancock retract his claim that "a protective ring" had been thrown around care homes, under threat of taking him to court.

And so to yesterday, when Hancock was called to account in the House, by shadow health spokesman, Jonathan Ashworth.

Referring to Cummings's allegations, he declared that they were either true, and if so the Secretary of State potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code and the Nolan principles, or they are false, and the Prime Minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street. "Which is it?", he asked.

All Hancock could do was "put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true". He had, he said, "been straight with people in public and in private throughout". Once a liar, I guess, always a liar. But then, he takes his cue from his boss.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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