Hancock faces calls to explain Covid test failings at care homes

Matt Hancock is under mounting pressure to explain why the government failed to protect care home residents at the outset of the Covid pandemic, as he sought to salvage his reputation after Dominic Cummings accused him of lying.

Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com 

The health secretary claimed for the first time it “wasn’t possible” to test all care home residents for Covid before they were discharged from hospital last March, because the testing capacity was not yet available.

But the shadow social care minister, Liz Kendall, said that explanation “simply doesn’t stack up”.

“There were over 530,000 tests carried out in the UK by 20 April, yet they couldn’t test 25,000 people discharged from hospitals to care homes, after we saw it sweep through care homes in Italy, France and America?” she said. “The reality is, they wanted to free up the beds and they didn’t prioritise older people.”

She accused Hancock, who previously claimed to have thrown a “protective ring” around care homes, of changing his story to “wriggle out” of responsibility.

On Wednesday, during seven hours of evidence to MPs, Cummings accused Hancock of promising ministers that all care residents in England were tested before being discharged back to their homes and then lying about this.

Hancock denied the claim and a No 10 spokesperson said on Thursday night : “The prime minister has full confidence in the health secretary and will continue working with him to protect public health and save lives.”

The UK has one of the world’s worst coronavirus death tolls: more than 127,000 people have died including more than 40,000 care home residents.

Data from Public Health England (PHE) released on Thursday found the transfer of patients with Covid from hospital to care homes resulted in 286 deaths. It said 96 outbreaks in care homes were related to this problem – about 1.6% of all care home outbreaks – and that the vast majority of these were identified during a matter of weeks in March and April 2020.

While PHE said the number of care home outbreaks seeded by hospital patients being discharged with the virus was “relatively small”, the “potential for their preventability … must be fully acknowledged”.

Many at Westminster believe Hancock may have been saved from being reshuffled out of his post by Cummings’ attack because the prime minister will not want to appear to be following the prompting of his embittered former aide.

Hancock’s defence at a Downing Street press conference came after Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser repeatedly took aim at the health secretary. In particular, he claimed Hancock had lied to the prime minister, falsely telling him care home residents would be tested before being discharged from hospital.

Hancock did not directly refute that claim at the press conference. He said his “recollection of events” was that “I committed to getting the policy in place but it took time to build the testing”.

He added: “I then went away and built the testing capacity … and then delivered on the commitment that I made.” He also defended his 100,000-a-day testing target, which Cummings claimed had distorted government priorities.

Cummings, who was ousted from No 10 in November, said that despite Hancock’s promise in March, testing of hospital patients being moved to care homes “only happened very partially and sporadically” – meaning Covid “spread like wildfire inside” them.

The Conservative MP Dan Poulter said Hancock’s remarks suggested there should be an immediate inquiry into Covid-related deaths in care homes.

Poulter, who is vice-chair of the all-party-parliamentary group on Covid, said: “It is one of the most troubling aspects of this pandemic that the elderly have borne the brunt despite being the most vulnerable in society. We must ensure these mistakes are not repeated and that care homes are never again treated as an afterthought in pandemic planning.”

Allies of Hancock have reacted furiously to Cummings’ testimony, saying he frequently briefed journalists against the health secretary and falsely took credit for his successes. One friend suggested Cummings may have had a grudge against Hancock since the pair were both Conservative advisers during the coalition government a decade ago.

Johnson himself dismissed Cummings’ claims on Thursday, saying they didn’t “bear any relation to reality”.

Cummings claimed the prime minister was unfit to lead the country through the pandemic, still regretted ordering the first lockdown last spring and had stubbornly rejected scientific advice last September. Cummings told stunned MPs at his marathon hearing that “tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die”.

In response to questions during a trip to a hospital in Essex, Johnson denied that his delay in ordering a second lockdown last autumn against the advice of scientific advisers led to unnecessary deaths.

The prime minister said he had grappled with the question of whether to enforce another lockdown, which he knew would be a “very, very painful, traumatic thing for people” and had to “set that against the horrors of the pandemic”.

He insisted: “At every stage, we’ve been governed by a determination to protect life, to save life, to ensure that our NHS is not overwhelmed, and we’ve followed to the best we can the data and the guidance that we’ve had.”

Hancock faces his own grilling before the health and technology committees in June, where he is likely to be quizzed about the situation in care homes and the availability of personal protective equipment.

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, also wrote to Hancock on Thursday, claiming he had been “disrespectful” towards the families of Covid victims by dodging critical questions at an earlier hearing before MPs.

Hinkley C: Hundreds more needed to finish nuclear power station

Update on our local “Golden Opportunity” and cornerstone of economic growth as our LEP, Heart of the South West (HotSW), would have us believe. – Owl

Another 1,700 workers are to be hired over the next year to help build the Hinkley C nuclear power plant in Somerset

By Dave Harvey Business Correspondent, BBC West www.bbc.co.uk

The new roles will bring the total working on the site to more than 7,000, according to EDF, the French energy firm leading the project.

The plant is due to open in June 2026 and not in 2025 as planned and will cost between £22bn and £23bn.

But critics have pointed out that Hinkley’s energy will be expensive.

Why does Hinkley need these extra people?

When the power station plan was first approved, EDF predicted the workforce would peak at around 5,000.

Although construction never stopped at Hinkley during the pandemic, work certainly slowed down.

Every day, thousands of workers are brought in by fleets of buses but necessary social distancing cut the numbers on each bus, making it harder to get them in. On site, new Covid safety rules mean every job takes a little longer.

Firms supplying parts and raw materials have also fallen behind. Overall, EDF admitted the project has gone about six months behind schedule.

The plant is due to open in June 2026 and not in 2025 as planned and will cost between £22bn and £23bn.

Those planning the construction have also changed their approach.

Originally, they had planned different types of work in sequence: first big groundworks, then civil engineering like huge concrete structures, then electrical and mechanical systems.

Now they can do many of these jobs at the same time, speeding up progress, but requiring more people.

Where will they all come from?

The company promised that at least a third of its employees would be local. During the original row over planning for Hinkley, opponents claimed that local people would only get unskilled, low-paid jobs.

EDF insisted they would hire and train people in Somerset, and they have spent millions with local colleges doing so.

Since 2016 the company has trained 14,000 people via schemes such as a new welding skills centre at Bridgwater College.

Tracie Skinner is one of the most recent trainees. At 45, she has had several different jobs, but thinks the welding qualification will open up better job opportunities.

“It’s a new skill full of possibilities,” she said.

Woman welding in protective gear

Tracie Skinner is a trainee welder on a course paid for by EDF Energy at Bridgwater College

“I’m not sure where it’s going to lead me. I might end up as the Banksy of welding, or working out at Hinkley, or wherever.”

About 9,000 people like Ms Skinner have registered with EDF’s Hinkley job agency.

When contractors on the project need people, they ask the on-site agency to find them first, rather than advertising nationwide. As a result, about 35% of the workforce is local.

Local companies have also won contracts to work on the project, through a match-making scheme run by the Somerset Chamber of Commerce.

One of them is a small electrical firm called Elecsis, based in Bridgwater, which makes hi-tech switching gear for electrical control systems.

I first met Chris Pratt, the managing director, at a breakfast meeting run by EDF for local firms in 2012.

After nearly a decade of waiting, listening, then designing and pitching for work, he has finally got a contract.

This time I met him in the middle of the huge building site, examining the building where his equipment will eventually go.

“It’s going to be quite something when the boys actually get on site and start fitting,” he told me.

“The design work alone has taken 18 months, being involved with a nuclear power station takes some doing.”

Who is paying for it all?

EDF. The original contract signed with the government in 2016 agreed that any cost overruns would be paid by EDF, not the UK Government or British electricity bill-payers.

The price for Hinkley’s electricity was fixed in a so-called “strike price” at £92 per megawatt hour, rising with inflation. That will not go up beyond that limit, even if the costs of building Hinkley Point C rise.

But critics have pointed out that Hinkley’s energy will be expensive.

The latest offshore wind farms have agreed strike prices of around £40 per megawatt hour.

Roy Pomfrey lives near the plant and has been a member of the Stop Hinkley campaign since the beginning.

“This increase is just evidence that EDF have made a complete pig’s ear of their calculations from the start,” he told me.

“If we’d put the money into renewables from the outset, we would already have a return on our investment.

“Renewables are already, at most, half the price of Hinkley, and while Hinkley will only get dearer, the cost of renewable energy will only come down.”

When will it be finished?

The latest forecast date for Hinkley Point C to generate electricity is 2026.

That is nearly nine years after the switch-on originally predicted in 2007 by EDF’s UK chief executive, Vincent de Rivaz.

Many of the subsequent delays were political, as the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government agonised over nuclear power and haggled with EDF over the price.

But there have also been construction problems, and then the pandemic set it back another six months.

Cranes at the Hinkley site

Eventually, Hinkley Point C will provide 7% of the UK’s total electricity

Now the company clearly hopes to accelerate out of lockdown.

Eventually, Hinkley Point C will provide 7% of the UK’s total electricity and catering for up to six million homes.

The full 2021 Hinkley Point C Socio-Economic Impact report can be read here.

Plans for Hinkley Point C were announced more than a decade ago and they gained government approval in 2016.

Hinkley Point A ceased producing electricity in 2000, while Hinkley Point B will be decommissioned no later than July 2022 due to its age.