The UK business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has defended Matt Hancock against criticism that he failed to protect people in care homes at the outset of the Covid pandemic, saying residents “were protected as far as we could”.
The health secretary is under mounting pressure after Dominic Cummings accused him of promising ministers that all care residents in England were tested before being discharged back to their homes and then lying about this. On Thursday, Hancock denied the allegation but his explanation that it “wasn’t possible” to test all care home residents before they were discharged from hospital last March because the testing capacity was not yet available, has been called into question.
Kwarteng said it was “very easy with hindsight” to say where things could have been improved.
“I completely understand the anger and frustration about care homes, because a large number of people died, and it was a terrible situation,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I think what Mr Hancock said was very clear. He’s always maintained that he wanted to build up the testing capacity. I think he was largely successful in that.”
Asked why people were discharged if there was insufficient testing capacity, he replied: “They were protected as far as we could. We were absolutely focused at that time on saving as many lives as possible. Nobody worked harder in government than Matt Hancock to do that.”
Hancock’s claim that there was insufficient testing capacity was the first time he had diverged from his previous claim to have thrown a “protective ring” around care homes. Questioned about how long it took the government to say on the record that there had been no protective ring, Kwarteng merely referred to its existing commitment to hold a public inquiry at the beginning of next year.
The pressure on Hancock increased on Thursday night as ITV News’s Robert Peston reported that Cummings had documentary evidence showing Hancock was summoned to the prime minister’s office for a meeting on 4 May last year to explain whether he had misled Cummings, Boris Johnson and the then cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill on testing patients before discharge into care homes and also about further testing of residents and staff in care homes. Peston said the term “negligence” was used in the documents.
Peston quoted a source close to the health secretary as saying: “We do not recognise this at all. The health secretary has had many meetings with the PM across a range of issues throughout the pandemic as you would expect.”
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.
At the Downing Street press conference on Thursday, Hancock did not directly deny Cummings’ claim that the health secretary had lied to the prime minister, falsely telling him care home residents would be tested before being discharged from hospital.
Hancock said his “recollection of events” was that “I committed to getting the policy in place but it took time to build the testing”.