Former health secretary Matt Hancock has blamed infected staff for bringing the Covid virus into care homes, which saw thousands of deaths of elderly residents during the pandemic.
In his diary of the coronavirus pandemic, serialised in the Daily Mail, Mr Hancock insisted that only a small proportion of cases – as few as 1.2 per cent – were caused by his decision to discharge patients from hospital without testing.
And he accused some care home bosses of “unscrupulously” using workers infected with the virus, in behaviour which he blasted as “scandalous”.
He also 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.
The former minister – who quit after breaching social distancing guidelines in an affair with aide Gina Coladangelo and has recently starred on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! – said that he warned cabinet two months before the first Covid lockdown that deaths in the UK could reach 820,000.
But he said that the reaction of cabinet colleagues was “somewhat ‘shrug shrug’” and claimed that the then prime minister Boris Johnson told him when first warned about the novel virus in China on 7 January 2020: “You keep an eye on it. It will probably go away.”
Mr Hancock claimed that Mr Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings delayed the government’s response to coronavirus because he thought it was “a distraction from our official withdrawal from the EU” that month.
It was not until 24 February that Mr Cummings “finally turned his attention to coronavirus”, he said.
In his most controversial claims, Mr Hancock said that the introduction of the Covid-19 virus into care homes in early 2020 was not “primarily” a result of elderly people being moved from hospitals 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 just 1.2 per cent of care home cases between January and October 2020 were associated with hospital discharges.
“Overall, England did no worse at protecting care home residents than many countries, and better than some – including Scotland, where Sturgeon’s team has been responsible for decision-making.
“Regardless, 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 his diary entry for 2 April 2020 – days after the imposition of the first national lockdown – he 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.”
In January 2021, during the second wave of Covid, Mr Hancock wrote of the “scandalous” behaviour of 40 different operators who continued to use staff who were infected with the virus.
“I am shocked,” he said “How could management do this, knowing how vulnerable their residents are? It underlines why we need to make jabs mandatory for people working in social care … There will be howls of protest, but we need to make it happen.”
In an interview with the Mail, Mr Hancock 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 diaries, being published under the title Pandemic Diaries: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle Against Covid, record that the chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty told Mr Hancock as early as 17 January 2020 that there was a “50:50 chance” coronavirus would spread beyond China and cause mass deaths in Britain.
Just 11 days later, Whitty told the health secretary and officials that 820,000 deaths was a “reasonable worst-case scenario” for the UK.
“The whole room froze,” wrote Mr Hancock. “We are looking at a human catastrophe on a scale not seen here for a century.”
But he said that when he passed on the warning to cabinet three days later, “the reaction was somewhat ‘shrug shrug’ – essentially because they didn’t really believe it”.
He wrote: “I am constantly feeling that others, who aren’t focused on this every day, are weeks behind what’s going on.”