MINISTERS were under growing pressure last night after finally admitting they had prioritised the NHS over care home residents — claiming it was ‘essential’.
Justice secretary Robert Buckland defended the decision to restrict Covid-19 tests to NHS patients at the start of the pandemic and to empty hospital beds by sending untested residents back to care homes.
The death toll for those tested rose by 363 to 35,704 people yesterday, but nearly 10,000 more have died without tests.
‘We needed to make a choice about testing and we did decide to focus upon the NHS,’ Mr Buckland told Kay Burley on Sky News.
‘I think that was essential. Now is not the time to blame people, I think that would be wholly counter productive.’
Microbiologist Dr Cathy Gardner — whose father Michael Gibson, 88, died of the virus in care last month — called his remarks ‘disgusting’, and accused ministers of manslaughter.
‘Thousands of families have been bereaved as a result of the guidance they issued and they are trying to dodge the issue and blame others,’ she said.
‘They cannot pretend they did not know the risks to care homes, they absolutely did. I’ve said it’s tantamount to manslaughter and I don’t think that’s too strong a statement.’
Boris Johnson was asked why hospitals were allowed to discharge residents who had not tested negative until April 15. The prime minister said the guidance was changed as the pandemic developed and that doctors were in charge of releasing patients.
He told MPs: ‘No one was discharged into a care home this year without the express authorisation of a clinician and they have the interests of those patients at heart.’
Dr Gardner said the explanation did not hold up.
‘On March 19 they instructed hospitals to discharge patients as fast as possible and that policy was fundamentally wrong,’ she said. ‘I understand the panic to clear as many beds as possible to avoid them being overwhelmed but the collateral damage has been 20,000 deaths in care homes.’
Public Health England (PHE) advised care homes on February 25 that it was ‘very unlikely’ any of their residents would be infected until cases were spreading in the community.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty told MPs on March 5 it was ‘highly likely’ the infection was spreading, but it was not until March 13 that care homes were told they were at risk.
More than 11,000 people are known to have died in care homes after being diagnosed but there have been 24,000 more deaths than expected in total — prompting fears thousands died undiagnosed, or because they could not access the treatment they needed.
Care England, which represents providers, said it hoped the sector would finally get the attention it needs.
Chief executive Prof Martin Green said: ‘It’s very significant because it’s probably the first time that we’ve had an admission that there was a priority for the NHS. We knew that from the very start of the pandemic.
‘Now I hope they will have learnt from that experience and start shifting their focus on to care homes.’
Meanwhile, London recorded no new Covid-19 cases for a 24-hour period — but PHE warned this could be due to a glitch with the patient notification system over the weekend.