If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
So reads one of Rudyard Kipling’s Epitaphs of the War. Substitute “Matt Hancock” for “our fathers” and it could serve as an epitaph for the many thousands of vulnerable elderly people and hundreds of care home staff who were consigned to die in the spring and early summer of last year.
Between March and June 2020, 19,286 Covid-related deaths were recorded in care homes in England and Wales. Many experts believe the true figure was much higher, as many deaths from Covid were not recorded as such, and ‘excess deaths’ were way above normal seasonal levels, at around 35,000. Between March and December of last year, 469 social care workers are recorded as dying of Covid.
These people mostly died terrible, lonely deaths, cut off from their loved ones who might have comforted them. But the lies that killed them live on and have been joined by new ones.
Dominic Cummings’s testimony to Parliament was a horrifying first-hand account of the complacency, incompetence and sheer chaos at the heart of government that allowed the pandemic to run out of control, not once but twice. No-one, including Cummings himself, comes out of this well, but there can be no doubt that the two men who bear the heaviest share of responsibility for what happened are Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
And their only response is yet more gaslighting and lies.
One of Cummings’ most specific allegations was that Hancock falsely promised the prime minister that all elderly patients moved from hospitals into care homes would be tested for Covid before being transferred.
“We were told categorically [by Hancock] in March that people would be tested before they went back to care homes,” Cummings told MPs. “We only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened.”
“The government rhetoric was we put a shield around care homes – it was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them – we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.”
And, as Cummings described, this lethal situation was made even worse by the fact that care home staff typically had inadequate PPE.
In response to Cummings’ allegations, a pallid and shifty Hancock insisted at the Downing Street briefing on Thursday:
“My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it. I then went away and built the testing capacity… and then delivered on the commitment that I made.”
Hancock’s promise that care home residents would be protected was made not just to the Cabinet but to the British people. Does he really expect people to believe that this promise was intended to refer merely to some unspecified point in the future and not to the urgent crisis at hand?
It was not until 15 April that Hancock moved to require testing of hospital patients being sent into social care.
And even after this – well into May and even June of last year – people were being transferred from hospitals to care homes without being tested or without the results of the test being known, and without being isolated from other residents.
On 19 May 2020 the president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services told Parliament’s Health and Social Care Select Committee: “We are nowhere near the level of testing required.” Other expert witnesses described continuing serious issues around testing that they were still facing: tests arriving late, long delays between tests and receiving results, a lack of repeat testing, and more.
They were probably not aware at the time that these delays may well have been worsened by what Cummings described as Hancock’s instruction to “hold tests back so I can hit my target” of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April (a target that we already knew was only met by fiddling the figures).
As many doctors have pointed out, even when hospitals wanted to test everyone sent back into a care home, they were discouraged from doing so by Public Health England (PHE) – instructed in turn by the government, which was putting pressure on hospitals to free up beds as quickly as possible. Until 15 April, by which time much of the damage had been done, the official PHE guidance stated that “negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.” Even worse, many care homes were threatened with funding cuts if they did not take in Covid patients.
Between 17 March and 15 April, about 25,000 people in England were discharged from hospitals to care homes. Analysis of data from 39 hospital trusts shows that about three-quarters of these people had not been tested.
Care homes themselves could see clearly that their residents’ lives were threatened by this, and many did their best to stop infection arriving via this route. One care home manager described to Amnesty International the sort of desperate negotiations that took place:
“With a 101-year old lady [who was a resident], [the hospital discharge team] said, ‘If you don’t take her back, we’ll get social services to take her to another care home.’ This is her home, she has been with us for several years; we did not want her to be sent to another place … I contacted the MP and he contacted the local authority and the hospital agreed to take her back.”
As palliative care specialist Dr Rachel Clarke tweeted yesterday, Hancock’s lethal lies have been glaringly exposed. If he had any sense of shame he would resign immediately. But shamelessness is perhaps the most distinctive feature of Boris Johnson’s government, and its ministers have long since ceased to pretend that they have any respect for the Ministerial Code.
Another of Kipling’s epitaphs for the Great War describes the spineless dishonesty of the politicians who presided over the slaughter in the trenches:
I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
It’s up to all of us to remember how and why so many thousands of vulnerable people and their carers have died in the past year and a half, so that those who told the lies that sent them to their deaths will one day have to face, if not those they slew, then at least a reckoning for what they have done.