Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to apologise for accusing care homes of failing to follow proper coronavirus procedures, with unions calling it “an insult” and Labour accusing the prime minister of trying to deflect blame for his own failures.
After Johnson’s remarks prompted outrage from the care sector, both Downing Street and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, brushed aside calls for an apology, insisting that the prime minister had been misunderstood.
During a visit on Monday, the PM said coronavirus had highlighted issues with the care sector, adding: “We discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have, but we’re learning lessons the whole time.”
The head of a leading social care charity condemned Johnson’s comments as “clumsy and cowardly”. Mark Adams, the chief executive of Community Integrated Care, told the BBC they reflected “a Kafkaesque alternative reality where the government set the rules, we follow them, they don’t like the results, and they then deny setting the rules and blame the people that were trying to do their best”.
But Downing Street declined repeated suggestions that Johnson should apologise, saying only that the comments had been misinterpreted. His spokesman said care homes “have done a brilliant job under very difficult circumstances”.
Answering an urgent question on coronavirus in the Commons, Hancock was asked by the shadow health minister, Jonathan Ashworth, whether he could “understand why people are so insulted by the prime minister’s remarks” and whether he would apologise.
Instead of answering the question, Hancock repeated the government line that Johnson had been misunderstood. The prime minister’s spokesman claimed he was pointing out that nobody knew the correct procedures at the time because the extent of asymptomatic transmission was not known.
Ashworth said later that an apology was required. “Boris Johnson’s remarks were crass, insensitive, insulting and a blatant attempt to shift blame for his failure to put a protective ring round care homes.”
Dave Prentis, the general secretary of the Unison union, which represents many care home staff, said the lack of an apology was an insult. He said: “Care staff have kept working throughout to help the vulnerable, putting their own health at risk with little or no protective kit and without testing. Many lacked full sick pay so couldn’t afford to stop home. Others went unpaid if they became ill, causing real financial headaches for doing the right thing.”
Rachel Harrison, a national officer for GMB, which also represents care staff, said the government’s stance was a disgrace: “I’m not sure quite how those comments could have been misinterpreted, to be honest.”
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said in a tweet that care homes had faced a lack of tests and protective equipment on top of a decade of underfunding. He said: “Shameful of Boris Johnson for trying to blame others for his government’s failures.
(February 25, 2020)
Public Health England issues guidance stating that it was “very unlikely” care homes would become infected. The guidance was not withdrawn until 12 March.
(March 31, 2020)
Despite a lack of official statistics about fatalities, care homes warn that they are at “breaking point” and MHA, the country’s biggest charitable provider, says it has suspected cases in more than half of its facilities.
(April 2, 2020)
The Department of Health and Social are guidelines on discharging hospital patients into care homes states: “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”
(April 14, 2020)
Chief medical adviser Chris Whitty says that more than one in ten care homes (13.5%) now has at least one case of Covid-19. Whitty says: “Care homes are one of the areas where there are large numbers of vulnerable people and that is an area of risk and therefore we would very much like to have much more extensive testing.”
(April 15, 2020)
Testing is expanded into care homes but only for people with symptoms.
(April 21, 2020)
Five of the largest care home providers say they have now recorded a total of at least 1,052 deaths
(April 28, 2020)
Care home deaths are included alongside deaths in hospitals after a sharp rise of more than 4,300 deaths over a fortnight in England and Wales. Testing is extended to staff and residents without symptoms.
(May 3, 2020)
Launch of a national delivery system for personal protective equipment to care homes is hit by a delay of up to three weeks
(May 13, 2020)
Academics report that more than 22,000 care home residents in England and Wales may have died as a direct or indirect result of Covid-19 – more than double the number stated in official figures.
(May 18, 2020)
An unpublished government study which used genome tracking to investigate outbreaks revealed that temporary care workers transmitted Covid-19 between care homes as cases surged. In evidence raising further questions about ministers’ claims to have “thrown a protective ring around care homes”, it emerged that agency workers – often employed on zero-hours contracts – unwittingly spread the infection as the pandemic grew, according to the study by Public Health England.
(June 11, 2020)
A report by care homes bosses says that thousands of people lost their lives “prematurely” because care homes in England lacked the protective equipment and financial resources to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.
(July 6, 2020)
Care leaders, unions and MPs round on prime minister Boris Johnson after he accuses care homes of failing to follow proper procedures amid the coronavirus crisis, saying the prime minister appeared to be shifting the blame for the high death toll.
Adams, when asked why he thought the prime minister’s comments were cowardly, said: “Because you’ve got 1.6 million social care workers who, when most of us are locked away in our bunkers, waiting out Covid, and really trying to protect our family, we’ve got these brave people on minimum wage, often with no sickness cover at all, going into work to protect our parents, our grandparents, our children, putting their own health and potentially lives at risk.
“And then to get perhaps the most senior man in the country turning round and blaming on them what has been an absolute travesty of leadership from the government, I just think it’s appalling.”
Adams said care homes had been let down on protective equipment and abandoned when it came to testing. “We’ve got a situation where the whole of the social care system has had to source 90% of its PPE since the beginning of the crisis, and that’s still the same,” he said. “We didn’t test social care until the end of May. So us, like most social care operators, had our losses before we’d even started having any testing at all.
“Yes, the testing has now reached a point where most of our staff in care homes and most of the residents in care homes have been tested once, but once is absolutely useless, because if you get tested and then get on the bus back home, and you pick up the virus on the bus, within a week you’re potentially asymptomatic and infectious.
“We have been crying out for weekly or ideally twice-weekly testing for months, and we’ve only just got that commitment. It is a question of the horse bolting and shutting the stable door.”