Guardian reports on Dr Cathy Gardner’s demand that the health secretary now releases crucial internal documents.
Robert Booth www.theguardian.com
Matt Hancock is facing further pressure over the measures put in place to protect care homes early in the coronavirus pandemic following allegations from Dominic Cummings that he misled the prime minister over the issue.
A woman whose father died of Covid in a care home that admitted an infected hospital patient is demanding that the health secretary release crucial internal documents about his risk assessment before thousands of people were discharged into care homes without tests.
The move is part of a potentially explosive high court case against Hancock, the NHS Commissioning Board and Public Health England scheduled for a three-day trial in October. It is likely to shed new light on this week’s claim and counter-claim between the prime minister’s former chief adviser and Hancock over care homes policy in the first weeks of the pandemic.
Cathy Gardner, who lost her father, Michael Gibson last April, said her lawyer was seeking the key documents before the autumn hearing to decide whether the discharge policy had broken the law. Government research this week concluded that hospital discharges had caused 286 Covid deaths, but the actual toll is likely to be significantly higher when fatalities who were not tested before death are counted.
Cummings told MPs about a discussion in government of the risks associated with the discharge policy, which he recalled as “Basically, ‘Hang on, this sounds really dangerous, are we sure?’”
He said the view was that there was no alternative because of the need to free up NHS beds to deal with the coming wave of patients. Crucially, he said, Hancock assured him and the prime minister that people who were being discharged into care homes from hospital would be tested.
Hancock responded on Thursday by saying he had told Downing Street they would be tested when sufficient capacity was available. He said it hadn’t been possible to test hospital discharges at the start of the pandemic, but he put that capacity in place.
Government guidance issued on 2 April 2020 said: “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”
The UK already had capacity for 10,000 daily tests at the start of April 2020, but Hancock said “we had to prioritise it by clinical need”. Between 17 March and 15 April, when tests were finally required before admission into care homes, around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into facilities, the National Audit Office has found.
The row has left people bereaved by Covid angry and frustrated at a lack of transparency. “People need the facts, instead of all this ‘He said, she said’,” said Gardner.
Gardner alleges that Hancock, the NHS Commissioning Board and Public Health England contravened the European convention on human rights, the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act when their policies allowed people to be discharged into care homes without being tested. The health bodies strongly dispute the claim.
Political allies backed Hancock on Friday. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said care home residents “were protected as far as we could. We were absolutely focused at that time on saving as many lives as possible”.
But Sam Monaghan, the chief executive of MHA, the UK’s largest provider of not-for-profit care homes, which lost 121 residents to Covid in the three weeks to 7 April 2020, described the discharge strategy as “like putting kind of a live explosive into a box of tinder”.
Sarah Knowles, whose father Graham died of Covid in a Manchester care home on 27 April 2020, said the policy was “just wrong” and highlighted other vulnerabilities. She said her father’s carers were improvising face masks from plastic document folders in April.
“They should have had PPE,” she said. “It makes me angry. If people were discharged into the care homes, they should have been tested.”
Amos Waldman, 41, whose grandmother Sheila Lamb died of Covid on 2 April 2021 in a care home in north London, said: “It feels as though they are trying to cover their own backs with one eye on the future public inquiry.”
The Department for Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.