Matt Hancock was warned in April 2020 about the need for a “focused effort” on testing people in care homes, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has been told.
The former health secretary told the inquiry on Friday afternoon that there was “not as much testing in care homes as many would have wanted” because the UK “did not have enough tests”.
A WhatsApp message, sent on April 4 2020 to Mr Hancock by his adviser, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, was read out at the inquiry.
It stated: “On testing, do we need to have a specific strand/push on testing in care homes?
“We are testing hospital admissions and clinical patients at risk.
“Do we also need a push on testing people in care? Or at least have some sort of focused effort on testing people in care.
“I know it is complex and the people dying in care homes are often people who were near the end regardless, but I worry that if a load of people in care start dying, there will be front pages demanding why we weren’t testing people in care homes.
“Do we need to get ahead of this now?”
Mr Hancock’s WhatsApp response to the message was then read out – it stated: “Let’s have rapid advice on this tying together all the angles”.
Responding to the WhatsApps, the former health secretary told the inquiry: “The reason that we did not at that point have as much testing in care homes as many would have wanted, was that we didn’t have enough tests and the clinical prioritisation of who got test, in what order, was absolutely something that I wouldn’t have interfered with.”
Asked if he was aware that care homes were home to not just those “near the end regardless”, but also disabled people living in long-term residential care from a young age, Mr Hancock said: “I absolutely had that at the front of my mind and, before the pandemic, had done significant work in trying to improve outcomes for those who are in adult social care.”
Mr Hancock said the fact his response to Mr Njoku-Goodwin’s WhatsApp message did not correct his adviser “in no way implies that wasn’t what I was thinking”.
The former health secretary said Mr Njoku-Goodwin was “one of the most exceptional public servants”, but added he was approaching the issue “from a comms angle in terms of what the newspapers might say”.
Mr Hancock told the inquiry that “every decision was a choice between difficult options”, as he discussed the decision to discharge hospital patients to care homes.
The former health secretary said that leaving patients in hospital would have made them “more likely to have caught Covid because of the risks of nosocomial infection”, adding that “it was rational and reasonable to make sure that they were in the safest place that they could be”.
Mr Hancock said: “I fear that if we had left those patients in hospital – those who were medically fit to discharge – there is a high likelihood that more would have caught Covid and the problem could have been bigger.”
He added that he had not heard of a solution to the problem of discharging patients that in hindsight would have “resulted in more lives saved”.