Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has denied claims that he disregarded expert advice on Covid tests for people entering care homes at the start of the pandemic. According to leaked WhatsApp messages obtained by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Mr Hancock was allegedly told in April 2020 that there should be “testing of all going into care homes”. However, government guidance later only mandated tests for those leaving hospital.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock has said that the messages have been “doctored” and that the BBC has not seen or independently verified them. The Telegraph has obtained more than 100,000 messages sent between Mr Hancock and other ministers and officials during the pandemic, which were passed to the newspaper by journalist Isabel Oakeshott.
In one message, dated 14 April, Mr Hancock reportedly told aides that Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, had conducted an “evidence review” and recommended “testing of all going into care homes, and segregation whilst awaiting result”. The message came a day before the publication of Covid-19: Our Action Plan for Adult Social Care, a government document setting out plans to keep the care system functioning during the pandemic.
Mr Hancock said the advice represented a “good positive step” and that it should be put into the document. However, later the same day he messaged again saying he would rather “leave out” a commitment to test everyone entering care homes from the community and “just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital”. He said that he did not think the community commitment added anything and it would “muddy the waters”.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock has said that this followed an operational meeting, where he was advised it was not possible to test everyone entering care homes. When the care plan was published on 15 April, it said the government would “institute a policy of testing all residents prior to admission to care homes”, but that this would begin with those being discharged from hospital. It also said that it would “move to” a policy of testing everyone entering care homes from the community. Guidance stating that tests should be carried out for everyone entering care homes was not introduced until 14 August.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock has said that the then-health secretary “enthusiastically accepted” advice from the chief medical officer on 14 April that testing was needed for people going into care homes. He added that at an operational meeting later that day, Mr Hancock was advised it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes, which he also accepted. The spokesman accused the Telegraph of doctoring the messages by excluding a line from a text from one of his aides which “demonstrates there was a meeting at which advice on deliverability was given”.
Lord Bethell, who was a health minister at the time, said that the government had wanted to test everyone entering care homes but the number of tests available was “very, very limited” so it had to prioritise those leaving hospital. He said that the thing that held them back was not a dispute about the clinical advice, but simply the operational ability to administer tests.
Mr Hancock’s spokesman said that he had gone as far as possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives. He added that the right place to analyse what happened during the pandemic was the public inquiry, which is now under way and is due to begin hearing evidence in June. Ms Oakeshott has defended her decision to release the messages, arguing it will be many years before the inquiry reaches any conclusions and we “cannot wait any longer for answers”.