Boris Johnson has rejected claims that he misled MPs over the coronavirus crisis in care homes after he clashed with Sir Keir Starmer over Government guidance on the risks posed to residents.
The Labour leader on Wednesday wrote to the Prime Minister to accuse him of wrongly denying that official advice, in place between February 25 and March 12, had stated that the chances of infection in care homes were “very unlikely”.
The guidance, read out during Prime Minister’s Questions by Sir Keir, prompted a firm denial from Mr Johnson, who told MPs that it was “not true that the advice said that”.
In his letter, Sir Keir attached a link to the guidance and called on the Prime Minister to return to the House of Commons to correct the record, adding that at a “time of national crisis is it more important than ever that Government ministers are accurate in the information they give.”
Responding, Mr Johnson said he stood by his comments and accused Sir Keir in turn of “selectively and misleadingly” quoting from the advice.
He also claimed that Sir Keir had left out “critical context” contained in the first paragraph of the guidance, which made clear it had been reflecting the “latest information” available in late February that there was “currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community”.
In a pointed statement, the Prime Minister reminded Sir Keir that he had vowed on becoming Labour leader to “work constructively with the Government in the face of this unprecedented pandemic,” adding that the “public expect us to work together.”
“I have sought to build the maximum political consensus behind our response to the coronavirus,” he continued. “I hope it remains your position to pursue that same consensus.”
The row erupted after Sir Keir used the weekly Commons fixture to challenge ministers over the crisis in social care, highlighting new figures from the Office for National Statistics, which showed that 40 percent of Covid-19 deaths had taken place in care homes.
He also accused Mr Johnson of dropping presentation slides on international death comparisons from the daily Downing Street press conference because they now showed the UK was in an “unenviable place.”
Defending the decision, Mr Johnson said it was “premature” to draw international comparisons, adding that the time to do so would be when “we have all the excess death totals for all the relevant countries.”
Ministers have previously stated that reliable comparisons between countries are not possible yet, because some countries include deaths from more settings than others.
Turning to the crisis in care homes, Sir Keir suggested that ministers had been “too slow” to intervene, adding that the official advice active until March 12 stated “it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home…will become infected”.
With 18,000 additional care home deaths recorded in April – three times the average over five years – he also asked Mr Johnon to account for 10,000 deaths in the tally which had not been categorised as Covid-related.
Sir Keir went on to challenge the decision to discharge patients from hospitals into care homes without receiving a negative test to confirm they were free of the virus.
He cited a reported published on Wednesday by The Daily Telegraph, in which a cardiologist claimed that hospitals had “discharged known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared with no formal warning that patients were infected, no testing available and no PPE to prevent transmission.”
His comments were later echoed by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who said on Twitter that he had been told by a care home provider that one of their residents had been discharged from hospital, only for doctors to later confirm that they had tested positive for coronavirus.
“There have been multiple deaths in the building since,” Mr Farage said, adding: “Starmer was on the right track today. This is a huge scandal.”
Responding, Mr Johnson challenged Sir Keir’s reading of the advice, adding that the Government had moved to lockdown care homes faster than the general population.
He also announced that an additional £600m was being made available for infection control in care homes, and that while the “number of casualties has been too high…the number of outbreaks is down and the number of fatalities in care homes is now well down.”
Turning to the issue of discharging patients to care homes, Mr Johnson said that the numbers in March and April had actually fallen, adding: “And we had a system of testing people going into care homes and that testing is now being ramped up.”
However, it was later pointed out that a routine testing system for patients entering care homes from hospitals was only established following the publication of the social care action plan on April 15.
Prior to that, guidance on the admission of patients explicitly stated that “negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”