Under fire Health Secretary Matt Hancock has insisted he told the Prime Minister people would be tested for coronavirus before being moved from hospitals to care homes “when we could do it”.
Mr Hancock told a Downing Street briefing on Thursday that it was not possible to test everyone being sent from hospitals into care homes at the start of the pandemic because the capacity was not available.
His comments came a day after the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings told MPs that Government claims about putting a shield round care homes were “complete nonsense”.
Mr Cummings also claimed Boris Johnson was furious to discover that untested patients had been discharged to care homes, alleging that Mr Hancock had told them both that people being discharged would be tested.
But when asked if he had told the Prime Minister and Mr Cummings that everyone going from hospitals to care homes would be tested, Mr Hancock said: “My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.
“I then went away and built the testing capacity for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of uses, including this one, and then delivered on the commitment that I made.”
The Government told care homes to isolate anyone who was known to be Covid-19 positive in their own room, despite some care home leaders having since said that they were not set up for this.
Allowing patients to be discharged to care homes also meant people who were asymptomatic were in a position to spread the virus.
Government documents show there was no requirement to test patients being discharged from hospital into a care home until April 15 2020.
Guidance dated April 2 said people who were Covid-19 positive could be discharged to care homes and recommended they were isolated.
It added: “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”
Guidance in place until March 13 further stated that community transmission was so low it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”.
When asked at the Downing Street briefing on Thursday if sending people back to care homes untested was his “biggest regret”, Mr Hancock said: “I have answered this question many, many times, because we didn’t have the testing capacity at the start of the pandemic, it wasn’t possible.
“What I am very proud of is we built that testing capacity, but it took time.”
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of UK Health Security Agency, suggested that outbreaks in care homes could be more to do with staff spreading the virus than hospital discharges.
She said: “Although the data is quite hard to interpret it was clear that there are different ways for the virus to come into care homes and it can come from a hospital discharge, but that’s definitely not the majority route of entry.
“It’s coming as community cases rise and care workers are going in and out as they do, because we need them to provide care, it’s coming in with community rates.”
A Public Health England (PHE) report has concluded evidence suggests “hospital associated seeding accounted for a small proportion of all care home outbreaks”.
It used hospital records to identify care home residents who may have acquired their Covid-19 infection whilst in hospital and looked at subsequent outbreaks in care homes from January 30 to October 12 last year.
Some 1.6% (97) of outbreaks were identified as potentially seeded from hospital associated Covid-19 infection, with a total of 806 (1.2%) care home residents with confirmed infection associated with these outbreaks, PHE said.
Most of these outbreaks occurred in March to mid-April before testing was brought in. The study did not look at asymptomatic cases.
Earlier, Boris Johnson said the Government did everything it could to minimise Covid transmission when asked about care homes.
The Prime Minister told reporters: “Of course what happened in care homes was tragic.
“We did everything we could to protect the NHS, to minimise transmission with the knowledge that we had.
“One thing that we did not know at the beginning of the pandemic – don’t forget, we did not know at the beginning of the pandemic quite the way in which the virus could be transmitted asymptomatically and that was one of the reasons that we had some of the problems that we saw in care homes.”
There have been 36,275 deaths involving Covid-19 in care homes since the pandemic began, according to the latest figures from the UK’s statistics agencies.
Last July, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told MPs that ministers and experts failed to recognise that care home residents were at risk from workers moving between homes and some staff not being paid sick leave, which meant they came into work while ill, he said.