Matt Hancock blames scientists for failure to test people discharged from hospitals to care homes saying they feared ‘false negatives’ – as Health Secretary insists he DIDN’T promise PM the screening would happen

  • Matt Hancock has given evidence to Commons health and science committees 
  • Admitted it was ‘hard’ to build a ring of steel around care homes during crisis
  • Said testing of residents hampered by capacity but experts also warned against 

Matt Hancock today blamed scientists for the failure to test people discharged from hospitals to care homes saying they feared ‘false negatives’.

The Health Secretary insisted the government had ‘tried’ to build a ring of steel around care homes at the start of the crisis. 

But he said there had been ‘challenges’ of a lack of testing capacity, as well as advice from scientists that screening individuals who did not have symptoms would produce too many ‘false negatives’. 

Mr Hancock also flatly denied Dominic Cummings’ claim that he lied to the PM about whether residents would be tested before being returned from hospitals. 

The comments came as Mr Hancock was grilled by a joint session of the Commons health and science committees.

Labour branded the Cabinet minister ‘at best disingenuous’ and said he had used information ‘selectively’ in a bid to justify his ‘abject failure’. 

During the evidence session, Mr Hancock stressed that he followed the clinical advice on care homes. 

‘We set out a policy that people would be tested when tests were available. Then I set about building the testing capacity for us to be able to deliver on that,’ he said.

‘The challenge was not just that we didn’t have the testing capacity but also that the clinical advice was that a test on somebody who didn’t have any symptoms could easily return a false negative and therefore give false assurance that that person did not have the disease.

Matt Hancock insisted the government had ‘tried’ to build a ring of steel around care homes at the start of the crisis, but it had been ‘hard’

‘At the same time, the clinicians were worried that, because it took four days to turn a test around, that if they leave somebody in hospital for those four days they might catch Covid and therefore go back to a care home with a negative result but having caught it.’

Mr Hancock said the Government had tried to throw a ‘protective ring’ around care homes but that it had proved difficult.

‘I think the most important words in the sentence are ”we tried to”. It was very hard,’ he said.

‘Each and every death in a care home weighs heavily and always will. We knew from the start from very early in January that the impact of this disease was most significant on the oldest and therefore care homes were going to be a particular risk.

‘We put in funding. We made sure PPE was as available as possible. We set guidance for care homes. Then later when we had the testing capacity – in July – we brought in weekly testing for staff.’

Mr Hancock said that at the beginning of the pandemic his powers over social care were ‘extremely limited’ and that the Department of Health and Social Care did not even have a list of care homes in England.

But he said he could ‘look in the mirror’ over his decision. ‘I know that I did that with the right motive being straight with people throughout,’ he said. 

Mr Hancock pointed to a recent Public Health England report suggesting only 1.6 per cent of cases going into care homes came from people discharged from hospital.

He said one reason why the proportion might be so low is that there were isolation rules for patients who were discharged into care homes because the testing capacity was not there.

The second reason is that a ‘much much higher’ proportion of staff enter a care home each day than residents.

He said: ‘If you think about a care home and who physically goes in the door, the number of times that that person going through the front door is a resident is really quite a small proportion of the total.

The comments came as Mr Hancock was grilled by a joint session of the Commons health and science committees

Mr Hancock also flatly denied Dominic Cummings’ (pictured) claim that he lied to the PM about whether residents would be tested before being returned from hospitals

‘So I do understand why people feel very strongly about this point of residents going into care homes, but in terms of the volume of human movement and interaction with a care home, you can understand once you think of it that way, because this virus transmits between humans of whatever type, whether you’re a staff member or a resident… It’s therefore the staff testing regime that was the big change that we brought in over the summer, and then we learned all of these lessons and did a review with the care home providers, and CQC and others, and came up with the care home winter plan.

‘And so in the second peak throughout the winter the proportion of deaths that we had in care homes is far, far lower and that is part of, that’s one of the many lessons that we’re learning as we go through this.’

Mr Hancock said he had no recollection of Mr Johnson expressing surprise about the care home situation when he returned from hospital in April.

‘Not that I can remember,’ he said.

According to the Guardian, Care England raised concerns over ‘lack of testing in hospitals and in the care sector’ with the Department of Health and Social Care ‘several times’.

The Care Providers Alliance are also said to have told the Government to ‘prioritise testing for care residents’ in March 2020 and emailed Mr Hancock directly to warn anyone discharged from hospital to social care settings ‘MUST be tested before discharge’.

Shadow social care minister Liz Kendall said: ‘Matt Hancock was at best disingenuous in his evidence to the select committee today. He selectively used briefings, evidence and clinical advice to defend his record instead of admitting his abject failure to protect care homes in the pandemic.

‘Even Matt Hancock knows he now categorically failed to put a protective ring around care homes. He has now used multiple excuses for failing to test those discharged to care and family members who have lost loved ones will be frustrated and deeply upset that they still do not have the truth from the Secretary of State today.

‘The Government was much too slow to act to protect residents and staff. As we emerge from this pandemic Ministers must put in place a plan to transform social care and ensure that care homes never again face a crisis of this scale.’

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