Nobody could have foreseen the issues that would arise during the Covid-19 pandemic, apparently. Matt Hancock in his statement to the Commons this week said the word “unprecedented” three times in one paragraph.
It was unprecedented, apparently, that Covid would have spread through our care homes, killing thousands of vulnerable and much loved older people in our country. Unprecedented, he said, again and again. That is apart from the precedent of what was happening in France, in Italy and the US.
Not only was there a very clear precedent, there was also lots of evidence that there was a serious problem with people being discharged from hospital with Covid-19 without any testing in place, leaving the residents and staff in those care homes in danger.
Members of parliament were raising this issue of dangerous discharge with ministers as soon as we were hearing about them in late March and early April. We were speaking up on calls with the Cabinet Office, we were writing letters, speaking to our hospital trusts. On 25 March, during Prime Minister’s Questions, MP for Hove Peter Kyle directly asked Boris Johnson about testing in care homes, and how it wasn’t working.
I took it upon myself to write to all of the care homes in my constituency as the lockdown came into force. I asked them how things were faring on the ground and how I could help. It is now chilling to read back over the pleas that came in from 30 March 2020.
“Hospitals are constantly contacting us in order to discharge residents who have not been tested,” said one. “[There are] no tests being carried out on the residents and also no treatment, staff are frightened to come to work,” another said on the same day.
Any constituency MP worth their salt knew exactly what was happening, so presumably, Hancock knew exactly what was happening – and yet the government did not change the official guidance on testing before discharging patients to care homes until 16 April, weeks after Peter Kyle had directly told the prime minister of the problem. Even then, regular testing for staff and residents in care homes in England was not rolled out until July.
Hancock, in his response to the allegations laid by Dominic Cummings – that the protective ring around care homes was, to put it mildly, a load of flannel – tried to present himself as some kind of white knight who every day wakes up with the zeal to save lives.
Well, what about all of the warnings to him and the prime minister that he ignored while blethering on about protective rings? Hancock stood in front of parliament and said, “we have been straight with people”.
Clearly, lots of Tory backbenchers had been lined up to row behind Hancock and say what a wonderful job he was doing. Which, funnily enough, they all did about Cummings and his eye tests. Not so keen on him now, are you my dears?
Anyone might suggest that they are just doing as they are told by their bosses. Those who are uncharitable might accuse them of failing to think for themselves or even worse, for their constituents. It is not a cardinal sin to criticise a minister when your constituents have died. No one is asking them to take a full on swing at him, just simply expecting him to account for the delays and the problems and the accusations laid in front of parliament by the prime minister’s right-hand man at the time.
Instead, Tory MP after Tory MP praised the health secretary as if they were a mother to a scolded child, gently stroking his hair and saying “there there, little one”. Not one of them raised the issues of lives lost in their constituencies because of care home failures. Nor did they challenge him on the fact that if a protective ring did exist they didn’t see it in their constituencies.
I assume they didn’t get the emails that I got. I assume that the 25,000 people discharged into care homes without a test were all in my constituency. I assume that they think that Covid hitting care homes hard was unprecedented and unpredictable even though there was a clear precedent, many people predicted it and, in fact, told the government it was happening.
The public is ill-served by a government and its cheerleaders who cannot be honest. Sycophancy, rather than scrutiny, leaves us ill-prepared and in this case so ill that people died.
I don’t need Cummings going down in a blaze of glory to tell me that Hancock’s “protective ring” around care homes was a fallacy. I lived through it; sadly not everyone did.
Jess Phillips is shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and the Labour MP for Birmingham, Yardley