Coronavirus: PM quizzed over 'unexplained' care home deaths

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Media caption,
Keir Starmer says the government was “too slow” to protect people in care homes from coronavirus.

Boris Johnson must account for official figures showing 10,000 "unexplained" deaths in care homes last month, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said.

Sir Keir said there were 18,000 more deaths in April than the average for that month, but only 8,000 were recorded as coronavirus-related.

He said the government had been "too slow to protect people in care homes".

Mr Johnson said there "is much more to do but we are making progress" on reducing the pandemic in care homes.

And he announced a further £600m to fight infections in care homes in England.

The money will be funnelled through local councils to help improve infection control by measures such as reducing staff rotation between homes, increasing testing and ensuring small independent homes have access to expert advice.

Mr Johnson and Sir Keir also clashed at Prime Minister's Questions over government advice issued at the start of the pandemic.

Sir Keir said that up until 12 March care homes were being told it was "very unlikely" anyone would become infected.

The prime minister said "it wasn't true the advice said that".

Sir Keir wrote to the PM after the session, to accuse him of misleading MPs and asking him to return to the Commons to correct the record.

But in a letter responding to Sir Keir, Mr Johnson said he stood by his comments and accused the Labour leader of "selectively and misleadingly" quoting guidance from Public Health England.

The advice that was withdrawn in mid-March was based on the assumption at the time that the virus was not spreading widely in the community.

In hindsight, that assumption was wrong and the fear that the virus had taken hold was part of the reason the government ordered the lockdown. At that point the advice was withdrawn.

But the large death toll in care homes is also related to what happened after that point.

Because we did not have a testing network or the right stocks of personal protective equipment care homes have undoubtedly suffered.

The NHS became the major priority and even now not all staff or residents have been tested.

The deaths being reported in care homes have also been a source of concern and confusion for a number of weeks.

Sir Keir Starmer is right to say a large number of deaths are unaccounted for.

There are a number of possible explanations for this.

They could be coronavirus cases that have been under-reported - the lack of testing in care homes may mean doctors have missed the presence of the virus when they have filled in the death certificates.

They could be "indirect deaths" related to the fact that residents have been unable to get care for other conditions, such as heart disease.

Finally, some are likely to be people who in previous years would have been taken to hospital to die but were kept in care homes - the ONS data also shows that the number of non-coronavirus deaths in hospital have actually fallen.

The guidance at the centre of the row was issued on 25 February and withdrawn on 13 March, a time when the virus was not thought to be spreading in the community.

It said: "This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of COVID-19 in the community.

"It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected."

The guidance went on: "There is no need to do anything differently in any care setting at present."

The prime minister's letter accused Sir Keir of "neglecting" to provide the context of the guidance.

Image source, UK parliament
Image caption,
Mr Johnson said deaths in care homes were too high

In his letter to Mr Johnson, the Labour leader said: "At this time of national crisis it is more important than ever that government ministers are accurate in the information they give."

He added that: "I expect you to come to the House of Commons at the earliest opportunity to correct the record."

In his letter to Sir Keir, Mr Johnson said he had sought engagement and consultation with opposition parties and added: "The public expect us to work together."

At Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Johnson said the government had brought in the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown but that there was "unquestionably an appalling epidemic" in that setting.

He added that the number of deaths in care homes had been "too high", but that "the number of outbreaks is down and the number of fatalities well down".

Sir Keir pointed to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed at least 40% of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales occurred in care homes.

And he quoted a cardiologist who had told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that hospitals had "actively seeded" the virus into the "most vulnerable" population by discharging "known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes".

Mr Johnson said: "The number of discharges from hospitals into care homes went down in March and April and we had a system of testing people going into care homes and that testing is now being ramped up."