Minister refuses to back Hancock Covid claim of ‘protective ring’ for care homes


The care minister, Helen Whately, has declined to back Matt Hancock’s claim that the government threw a “protective ring around care homes” at the start of the pandemic.

Whately worked under the former health secretary in the first 18 months of Covid, but she avoided endorsing her former boss’s assertion, which will be tested at the public inquiry which starts in earnest this week.

Asked whether Hancock was right in May 2020 when he told parliament “we absolutely did throw a protective ring around social care”, Whately told the Guardian she wanted to “use my own words which is that I look back on doing everything I felt that we could to help care homes and social care more broadly at an incredibly difficult time”.

Evidence sessions examining the UK’s preparedness for the pandemic start this week and Hancock, who resigned from the government in June 2021 after breaking lockdown rules, is due to give evidence this month.

Lawyers for trade unions are expected to highlight the chronic underfunding of social care and its fragmented provision in an opening statement to the inquiry this week. Government policy at the start of the pandemic of not requiring the isolation of untested hospital patients discharged into care homes has already been ruled illegal in the high court, where judges described it as “irrational”.

“I look back on it, how hard it was at that time when we were trying to get PPE out to social care,” Whately said. “We had so few tests available.”

She added: “I know looking back on it, it was very hard in the early days … We were really doing all that we possibly could. Still, it was really hard because people who were living in care homes were particularly vulnerable to Covid, as we know.”

Labour’s Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, seized on the comments as an admission by the Conservatives of “what the country could see: their ‘protective ring’ was an insult to the staff, families and care home residents who were not only vulnerable but voiceless”.

Leaked WhatsApp messages have already revealed Whately warned Hancock against restricting visits to care homes in October 2020 saying it would be “inhumane” and some elderly people were “just giving up”. Earlier, on 8 April 2020 she urged Hancock: “We should be testing all care home residents and staff who have had Covid contact, irrespective of symptoms.”

However, care homes were not able to start testing residents or staff without symptoms until the end of April. She also complained to Hancock that PPE supplies were “all over the place” and that discharging hospital patients into care homes was “my biggest concern”.

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who preceded Hancock as health secretary, has also been called as a witness in the module starting this week on pandemic preparedness, alongside David Cameron and George Osborne, who are set to be asked about the impact of their austerity policies from 2010 onwards on the nation’s readiness.

The module on care homes is not due to start hearing from witnesses until spring 2025.

Broader government handling of social care, which looks after over a million people in England, has been widely criticised.

It is estimated that an extra 480,000 care workers are needed in England by 2035 and there are already 165,000 vacancies. In 2020 when Hunt was out of government under Boris Johnson and chaired the Commons health and social care select committee, he said the annual social care budget must rise by £7bn by the end of 2024. The Health Foundation charity estimates the funding gap will be £9.3bn by next year but last autumn the government raised spending by equivalent to £3.75bn a year.

Whately told the Guardian there had been “big, big workforce challenges” over “many years”.

Asked if the latest £7.5bn increase in central government funding over two years was the right amount, she said: “I want to see social care really well funded, but I’m not making the decisions for how all of government is funded. I will argue the corner for my sector.”

Today in England about 10,000 people live in the worst inadequate care homes, where problems are often caused by lack of staff. Asked if she accepted staff shortages were causing pain and suffering, she said: “You’ll understand if I choose my own words, but I know … for some providers, staffing is one of their big challenges. Really good care homes have staff there for a long time but others are finding it really difficult. I think we’ll see quality of care improve if we can help providers retain staff.”

She said increasing recruitment of care staff from overseas by adding them to the shortage occupations visa list was helping in the short term, but it was not a long-term answer.

“I want everyone to be in a good, if not outstanding, care home,” she said. “That is why I think the workforce reforms and the funding for social care are really, really important. But I don’t think anybody sitting in my position could come in and fix it in 24 hours. This is a long-term problem.”