Care workers have hit back at claims by the former health secretary Matt Hancock that the Covid virus was brought into homes by infected staff.
In his book, the Pandemic Diaries, which is being serialised in the Daily Mail, Hancock said only a small proportion of cases were caused by his decision to discharge patients from hospital without testing.
“The vast majority of infections were brought in from the wider community, mainly by staff,” he wrote in May 2021, citing data from the UK Health Security Agency, which found that 1.2% of care home cases between January and October 2020 were associated with hospital discharges.
He said that the then chief executive of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens, was “determined” to ensure that elderly patients who did not need urgent treatment were discharged from hospital to free up beds, whether to care homes or their own homes.
Adam Purnell, who managed the Kepplegate care home in Lancashire throughout the pandemic, said he was outraged by the claim.
He said: “I will die on the hill I have stood on since the very outset of the pandemic, which is that care home staff acted with the utmost dedication and commitment, despite incredibly poor management from the Department of Health and Social Care.
“In terms of the 1.2% statistic, we weren’t testing people, we had no tests to do so … so where have they got that stat from? There was no guidance whatsoever from any authority, no funding, no training with PPE, no support at all til the very late half of 2020.
“Hancock’s actions caused so much danger to social care sector. His latest statements are a disgrace.”
In his diary entry for 2 April 2020 – days after the imposition of the first national lockdown – Hancock acknowledged that patients leaving hospital would not be tested, but said care homes were given clear guidance on isolation measures.
“The tragic but honest truth is we don’t have enough testing capacity to check anyway,” he wrote. “It’s an utter nightmare, but it’s the reality.
“Under the circumstances, we must make sure that anyone going from a hospital into a care home is kept away from other residents. I hope this message filters through and is followed.”
Two months later, he wrote: “The main takeaway is that the virus is primarily being brought in by staff, not by elderly people who’ve been discharged from hospital. This explains a lot.”
Karolina Gerlich, the chief executive of the Care Workers’ Charity, described Hancock’s comments as “outrageous, ridiculous and unacceptable”.
She said the spread of Covid in 2020 was due to the policy of discharging people from hospitals without knowing whether they had been infected – a policy introduced by Hancock.
“It was a horrific time. There was late provision of PPE and then a total lack of guidance on how to use it. At one point, we were so desperate that some staff were using bin bags as aprons and washing their hands until they were raw because of the government emphasis on handwashing. Some staff even sourced PPE themselves just so they had some form of protection.
“Staff at care homes across the UK were making huge sacrifices, including not seeing family and friends for weeks and working overtime, in order to protect care home residents.
“We couldn’t say no to local authorities telling care providers they had to take people in, so huge numbers of staff had to scramble to make do. There were almost daily – sometimes contradictory – regulations coming to us from Public Health England, the Care Quality Commission, Department of Health and Social Care, and local authorities.”
The former minister – who quit after breaching social distancing guidelines during an affair with aide Gina Coladangelo, and recently appeared on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! – said he did not want to point the finger of blame at staff during the worst months of the pandemic for fear of undermining morale.
“I didn’t want to say it, I didn’t want at the time to demoralise staff by talking about it in a way that would have been very difficult to do in a sensitive manner,” he said. “The awfulness of what the virus did to people in care homes around the world will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
In a new extract released on Saturday, Hancock said he resigned as health secretary after colleagues failed to defend him publicly after the disclosure he was having an affair with an aide.
In a diary entry, Hancock records how, on Thursday 24 June 2021, he went to see Johnson in Downing Street to tell him the Sun was about to publish details of his affair. He said the paper was accusing him of bringing Coladangelo into his department because of their affair – which he said was untrue – and of breaching Covid guidance on social distancing.
Johnson replied: “Well, you haven’t broken the law. The guidelines aren’t binding – they’re recommendations. So I will stand by you.”
However, by the weekend he realised that his position was becoming untenable. “Privately, I was still getting positive messages from colleagues. Publicly, few were willing to defend me. Politically, I was increasingly isolated,” he wrote.
“I went to Chequers to see the PM. I explained that I had been thinking about what had happened and how it had made people feel – and that my mind was made up. The damage to my family and to the government was too great.
“I told Boris I had to resign.”
Hancock also described that farcical scene in the garden of Chequers – the prime minister’s official country residence – as they tried to film his resignation statement.
“In the end, the great machinery of the state was nowhere. It was just me and the PM fumbling around with an iPhone. He stood on the grass, holding the phone while I said my piece. It took a few goes to get it right,” he wrote.
“He nodded sympathetic encouragement so much throughout the first take that the camera waved up and down. In the end it wasn’t perfect, but I was beyond caring: I had to get it out.”