Coronavirus: NHS prioritised over social care during early stages of outbreak, minister says

The government prioritised the NHS over social care early on in the coronavirus outbreak, a minister has told Sky News.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said: “We needed to make a choice about testing, we did decide to focus upon the NHS.”

Pressed further on whether it was government policy to focus on the health service first and foremost, he told Kay [email protected]: “That’s right. I think that was absolutely essential.”

Mr Buckland said there have been “huge issues” in adult social care, adding: “We’ve seen a huge tragedy in our care homes which is a great regret.”

Admitting there was “more to do”, he added: “There have been lots of examples of care homes that have mercifully stayed infection free, but sadly [there have been] far too many cases of infection and then death.

“I think every country in the world will look back and say there are things we could have done differently.”

Sky News analysis of Office for National Statistics figures shows that 39,404 people died in care homes in England and Wales between 13 March and 8 May.

This means there have been more than 20,000 excess deaths in care homes compared to the five-year average.

Another minister said on Tuesday that some hospital patients with COVID-19 may have been transferred into care homes, seeding it into communities.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said there could have been “some instances” where those without symptoms were moved untested into care homes.

Addressing a committee of MPs that same day, care home bosses accused the government of prioritising the NHS and not care homes and failing to make good on promises of support.

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents care homes, said that from the start of the pandemic care homes were a second thought despite housing the “most vulnerable people”.

Analysis – Time for honesty about early coronavirus response may well have come
by Kate McCann, political correspondent

After thousands of deaths across the country and many of those in care homes, ministers are facing growing calls to admit where things went wrong.

While very few are calling for an inquiry right now, lots of people want to know why testing was restricted to hospitals only and why patients were transferred back into care homes without being checked for coronavirus first.

Judging by Robert Buckland’s tone this morning in an interview with Kay Burley, the time for honesty about those decisions may well have come.

The justice secretary admitted that more must be done to tackle the outbreak in care homes and added that a decision had been made during the early stages to focus testing on hospital patients, not those in the wider community – many believe this contributed to the fast spread of the virus among the elderly in homes.

He said he would be “appalled” if people thought the government was passing the buck to councils when it comes to care home deaths, but added too that the sector is fragmented and that admissions back from hospital were not as widespread as some have claimed.

He also appeared to suggest that the new test track and trace system, which scientists say is essential as lockdown is lifted, may not be fully up and running until well into June and that the app, which is supposed to run alongside tracers on the ground, may not be ready by the end of this month.

Asked whether parents should send their children back to school he accepted that people must “feel safe” before they do so, a marked change in tone from the typical discussion around scientific evidence and accountability.

The public wants the government to succeed and they are, at least for the most part, willing to accept that mistakes have been made in coping with a disease very few understood.

But they want to see humility and honesty from ministers too. Today, in Mr Buckland, they got a taste of that.

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