The UK government on Wednesday came under renewed scrutiny over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic after a leaked dossier of WhatsApp messages involving former health secretary Matt Hancock raised fresh questions about the testing of people in care homes.
The Daily Telegraph reported that Hancock rejected advice by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, to test all people going into care homes for Covid-19.
Hancock on Wednesday denied rejecting clinical advice on care home testing, saying the Telegraph story was “flat wrong”.
The government’s handling of care homes during the pandemic, where thousands of people died after contracting Covid, has been widely criticised.
This issue is expected to be a key focus of the public inquiry into the UK’s response to the crisis.
The Telegraph said it had obtained about 100,000 messages sent between Hancock, other ministers and officials during the pandemic. The messages were passed to the newspaper by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, co-author of Hancock’s book about the pandemic, who has been critical of Covid lockdowns.
Certain WhatsApp messages involving Hancock and some of his advisers focused on discussions inside the government ahead of issuing a document about trying to control the spread of Covid in care homes in England.
The Telegraph said that on April 14 2020 Hancock stated in a WhatsApp message to his advisers: “Chris Whitty has done an evidence review and now recommend testing of all going into care homes . . . This is obviously a good positive step & we must put into the doc.”
One of Hancock’s aides replied by saying he had sent Hancock’s request “to action”.
Later that day, the aide asked Hancock whether the health secretary wanted to remove a “commitment” to test people entering care homes from the community.
The aide then asked Hancock to confirm that he wanted to state it was the government’s “ambition” to test everyone going into a care home from the community.
The Telegraph said Hancock responded by saying: “Tell me if I’m wrong but I would rather leave it out and just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital. I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters.”
A spokesperson for Hancock said the “stolen” WhatsApp messages had been “doctored” to create a false story.
“On April 14 Matt received a response to his request for advice from the chief medical officer that testing was needed for people going into care homes, which he enthusiastically accepted.
“Later that day he convened an operational meeting on delivering testing for care homes where he was advised it was not currently possible to test everyone entering care homes, which he also accepted.
“Matt concluded that the testing of people leaving hospital for care homes should be prioritised because of the higher risks of transmission, as it wasn’t possible to mandate everyone going into care homes got tested.”
In the document about controlling the spread of Covid in care homes published on April 15 2020, the government said it would “move to institute a policy of testing all residents prior to admission . . . This will begin with all those being discharged from hospital.”
At the time, the UK was trying to secure large volumes of Covid tests to improve the effectiveness of its response to the pandemic.
Labour responded to the Telegraph story by saying: “The claim that the government threw a ‘protective ring’ around care homes during Covid has proven to be a sham. They ignored the chief medical officer and people died.”
Martin Green, head of Care England, the care homes industry body, said: “If Matt Hancock has been responsible for a decision to limit testing of people coming into care homes, he has to take responsibility for the consequences and I hope this will all be clarified in the public inquiry.”