Care homes told they were safe as coronavirus ran rampant

Government advisers warned ministers that there was “sustained transmission” of coronavirus in Britain a fortnight before official advice to care homes stated it was “very unlikely” that residents would be infected.

Sean O’Neill, Greg Hurst 

The early warning about the virus spread came from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling committee (SPI-M) which feeds directly into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the government’s panel of scientific advisers.

The committee circulated an assessment on February 10 stating: “It is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will become established in the coming weeks.” On February 25, however, Public Health England (PHE) told the care sector “the current position in the UK” was that “there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community”.

The PHE guidance said that care home staff did not need to wear facemasks and added it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”.

That guidance, which remained in force until March 12, was at the centre of Wednesday’s Commons clash between the prime minister and Sir Keir Starmer.

The Labour leader pointed to the PHE statement when he questioned Boris Johnson over the high death toll and whether the government had been “too slow to protect people in care homes”. Downing Street accused Sir Keir of quoting “selectively and inaccurately” from the guidance but the emergence of the SPI-M advice note raises new questions about ministers’ repeated claim that they have always been guided by scientific advice.

Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, said: “Ministers deny they were slow to tackle the virus in care homes, and say they acted as soon as they had advice, but according to this document there were clear warnings that community transmission was happening as early as February.

It is not clear who read the SPI-M assessment on February 10 or why it was apparently disregarded before the PHE guidance was written.

Professor Paul Johnstone, national director at PHE, said: “All of PHE’s advice and guidance, including specific guidance for care homes, is based on the latest scientific evidence. The care homes guidance we produced in February was related to what we knew at the time, and with further evidence, it was updated in March.

“Care homes have always been a priority for government and, along with the wider health sector, PHE is working closely with care homes and the wider social care sector to provide advice and support to them in preventing and managing cases and outbreaks.”

Ministers said that the situation in care homes was the “top priority” for the health department and an extra £600 million was being ploughed into infection control. But care homes say much of the money has been given to local councils and has not been forwarded to them to help with extra staffing and PPE costs.

Unheeded warnings

February 10 SPI-M advisory committee warns there is “a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK”.

February 25 PHE says there is no transmission and it is “very unlikely” people in care will be infected.

March 5 Chris Whitty says it is “highly likely” it is being transmitted.

March 12 PHE’s guidance to care homes is withdrawn.

March 19 Health department tells NHS to discharge 15,000 people within a week who aren’t tested.

April 2 Guidance says negative tests are not required prior to transfers / admissions to care homes.

April 15 Testing required for hospital patients before care home transfer.

May 6 Boris Johnson “bitterly regrets” care home deaths number.

May 13 Government announces a further £600 million to protect against infection in care sector.