Hancock publicly promised care home testing against advice, officials claim

Labour calls for absolute clarity over what advice was received and when ahead of public inquiry into pandemic response

Anna Isaac
Anna Isaac
Sunday 18 July 2021 07:46
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Related video: Hancock denies lying to Boris Johnson about Covid tests in care homes

Britain’s former health secretary publicly promised to test all staff and residents in care homes last year, despite being told his deadline was impossible by senior officials.

Matt Hancock, who resigned last month after he was revealed to be having an affair with an aide and non-executive director of the health department Gina Coladangelo, dismissed advice from officials about testing capacity in April, May and June last year.

There have been more than 42,000 care home resident deaths involving coronavirus in England and Wales according to the Office for National Statistics. The Care Quality Commission is expected to release data on deaths per care home this week.

Mr Hancock told a Downing Street press conference in May 2020 that every resident and care home worker would be tested every two weeks by the start of June. However, this promise rested on having sufficient capacity for rapid test kits, which officials said would not be available for several months at meetings in April, May, and June.

However, the former health secretary, who is still an MP, repeatedly told officials to “come back with a different answer” when they said a supply crunch made the government’s commitment impossible to fulfill.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care did not respond ahead of publication.

The Covid-19 test shortage had been exacerbated in the spring and summer of 2020 as a result of the delay and then withdrawal of lateral flow kits ordered from Randox. Supply problems were raised with Mr Hancock in April and May, ahead of the eventual withdrawal of some Randox test kits in June.

Nevertheless, Mr Hancock pressed ahead with a public commitment in May which was unsustainable and ultimately unfulfilled, officials said. One official claimed that Mr Hancock had put extra pressure on staff because he had “overpromised” in public and at cabinet meetings.

Liz Kendall, Labour shadow social care minister, said: “It’s concerning that the former health secretary made promises to care home residents and families that went against the advice of his own health experts.”

She added: “When the government finally launches its public inquiry into their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, it must be absolutely clear about what advice the minister received and when. Families of loved ones who died in care homes deserve to know the truth.”

Randox, which won a £133m contract to deliver kits, was intended to be a leading provider of test kits to care homes and in other healthcare settings including hospitals, officials said. An overreliance on the company directly contributed to the delay in getting regular testing in place in care homes, they added.

In July 2020, some 750,000 test kits from Randox had to be recalled after they were found to contain swabs that were not sterile. Both its original contract for the test kits in March and a further six-month extension to that contract were awarded without a competitive process.

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said that “right from the outset” his body had “called for adult social care to be placed at the forefront of the government’s testing plan.” He added that testing, vaccination and PPE continue to underpin safeguarding of the sector.

The officials’ description of an impossible promise comes after former top Downing Street aide, Dominic Cummings, told MPs that Mr Hancock had lied about testing hospital patients ahead of discharge to care homes. Mr Hancock has vehemently denied that he lied about the matter.

It was also reported that the prime minister had described the former health secretary as “hopeless” in a WhatsApp message.

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