An email thread between top officials at No10 and the Cabinet Office in April 2020 shown to the Covid-19 Inquiry reveals increasing fears about the spread of the pandemic in hospitals and care settings.
But, asked by a member of the Covid-19 taskforce, a director in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said infections that were picked up in hospitals and spread into care homes were “not an issue of concern”.
The revelation comes as the probe laid bare the chaos surrounding the government’s plans to discharge thousands of patients from hospitals into care homes to free up capacity in the NHS.
Lead counsel Hugo Keith KC pressed the former head of the Covid-19 taskforce Simon Ridley over whether sufficient testing capacity was in place to ensure those discharged were not infected with the virus.
Mr Ridley said there were “limitations” to testing capacity, but said “ultimately there needs to be a decision” and the government was striking a “balance”.
Data from the first wave of the pandemic showed care home residents in England were almost 20 times more likely to die than older people living in their own homes.
The discharge of Covid patients into care homes without testing was later ruled unlawful, with High Court judges finding the policy failed to take into account the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents from non-symptomatic transmission.
Mr Ridley told the inquiry on Tuesday: “We were, certainly in the Cabinet Office and in No10 at the end of March and April, concerned to understand the position in care homes.
"I think it is true that those concerns were growing as we went into April."
An email from Boris Johnson’s special adviser Dr Ben Warner in April cited evidence that a fifth of infections and one in 10 deaths could be traced back to hospitals.
Hitting back at the DHSC official’s insistence it was “not an issue of concern”, he urged the Cabinet Office to “push quite hard” for more information about hospitals and care homes.
Asked by Mr Keith whether the Cabinet Office and No10 had to “push” DHSC on the issue, Mr Ridley said: “Yes, that is broadly correct.”
The shocking email was revealed as Mr Ridley also went on to claim he was “blindsided" by Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, aimed at boosting the hospitality sector, during the summer of 2020.
Asked by Mr Keith what the Covid taskforce’s view on the scheme was, Mr Ridley said it had been decided by the prime minister and chancellor and that Mr Keith’s assumption that he did not advise, comment on or was asked about the scheme was "correct".
Asked if he was “blindsided by the Treasury and there was nothing you could do”, Mr Ridley responded: “Correct.”
On his discovery of the scheme, Mr Ridley said: "I don’t recall that there was, at that point, a prediction of the impact of it over the next few weeks, but it obviously factored into future advice."
Asked whether he was concerned about Eat Out to Help Out not being brought to him personally, he added: "Things happen that surprise. We were focused on the advice we could give in the context of the steps of the May 2020 document.
"This was announced as government policy. I didn’t spend time worrying particularly about the whys and wherefores of that."
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