‘Shameful’: Keir Starmer responds to Boris Johnson’s comments on care homes

Andrew Woodcock
·5-min read

Keir Starmer has denounced as “shameful” Boris Johnson‘s apparent attempt to blame care home operators for deaths of residents and staff from coronavirus.

The Labour leader demanded an apology from the prime minister a day after Mr Johnson suggested that the 20,000 fatalities in care homes during the pandemic could in part be explained by the failure of many to ”follow the procedures” to protect residents and staff.

Amid a furious outcry from home operators and unions, Downing Street made clear that the prime minister was not saying sorry for his remarks.

Asked eight times at a media briefing to say whether the PM regretted his comment and would now retract it or apologise, his official spokesman declined to do so, instead repeating again and again the same statement issued by Downing Street last night in a bid to calm the furore.

In a tweet this afternoon, Sir Keir said: “At least 20,000 people have died from Covid-19 in care homes. Residents went without tests. Staff were left without PPE [personal protective equipment]. And all after a decade of cuts to social care.

“Shameful of Boris Johnson for trying to blame others for his government’s failures.”

Mr Johnson was asked during a visit to Yorkshire on Monday to explain how he accounted for the high death figures in care homes. He said: “We discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have.”

The reply was denounced as “cowardly” and “a travesty of leadership” by Mark Adams, who runs the charity Community Integrated Care.

Mr Adams told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “If this is genuinely his view, I think we’re almost entering a Kafkaesque alternative reality where the government sets the rules, we follow them, they don’t like the results, they then deny setting the rules and blame the people that were trying to do their best.”

The National Care Forum said Mr Johnson’s remarks were “totally inappropriate” and “hugely insulting” to care workers.

Forum executive director Vic Rayner said that care homes had followed the guidance “to the letter” but the government’s attention was focused on hospitals.

“Government guidance has come to the sector in stops and starts – with organisations grappling with over 100 pieces of additional guidance in the same number of days, much of which was not accompanied by an understanding of the operational implications of operating care services,” she said.

And Joyce Pinfield of the National Care Association said: “We are absolutely appalled and feel this is a slap in the face for the care sector and our wonderful care staff.”

Asked by reporters today whether the PM would apologise or retract his statement, whether he was trying to imply that care home operators and staff had “done something wrong” and whether he was simply trying to pass the buck for government failings onto frontline staff, Mr Johnson’s spokesman repeatedly said: “Throughout the pandemic, care homes have done a brilliant job under very difficult circumstances.

“The PM was pointing out that nobody knew what the correct procedures were because the extent of asymptomatic transmission was not known at the time.

“We have put in place a comprehensive action plan to protect care homes, including rigorous testing and additional funding for PPE.”

More than half of care homes in England have been hit by Covid-19, according to official estimates, with one in five residents infected and 7 per cent of staff.

Anger has grown over the decision to discharge 25,000 hospital patients who had not been tested, fuelled by health secretary Matt Hancock’s notorious claim to have “thrown a protective ring” around them.

The fate of so many care home residents has also been blamed on the failure to provide enough PPE, with supplies requisitioned for the NHS.

It wasn’t until 15 April – almost a month after the lockdown began – that Mr Hancock finally promised to test all patients before they were admitted.

But questioned in Goole, east Yorkshire, the prime minister instead pointed to poor practices, saying: “One of the things the crisis has shown is we need to think about how we organise our social care package better and how we make sure we look after people better who are in social care.

“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.

“Most important is to fund them properly ... but we will also be looking at ways to make sure the care sector long-term is properly organised and supported.”

The general secretary of public service union Unison, Dave Prentis, said it was “despicable for Boris Johnson to blame incredible, dedicated care workers for his own government’s failings”.

Mr Prentis 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. ​

“This was all the result of poor decisions taken by his government. The prime minister should be ashamed, take responsibility and commit to proper, lasting reform of social care.”

Mike Padgham, head of the Independent Care Group (ICG), said: “We should not be getting into the blame game and it is wrong to criticise care and nursing homes at this time.”

The vast majority of providers had “done their absolute best in the face of slow and conflicting advice”, he said, adding: “Providers were operating in the dark over what they ought to do and with one arm behind their backs in terms of the support they were given. In those circumstances, they have worked miracles.”

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