A senior minister has told Sky News that “wrong” advice at the start of the coronavirus outbreak could have led to mistakes in the government’s response.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey made the comments during an interview with Kay Burley in which she was challenged about ministers’ handling of COVID-19 in adult social care.
Asked if the government had, in hindsight, got the approach to care homes wrong, Ms Coffey told Kay Burley@Breakfast that “you can only make judgements and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time”.
Pressed again, she replied: “If the science was wrong, the advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people then think we made a wrong decision.
“But you have to take judgements based on what you have.”
The government’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak has been informed by advice from experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
In the wake of Ms Coffey’s comments, Downing Street appeared to suggest it accepts that ministers bear responsibility for the decisions made in the response to COVID-19.
“The prime minister is hugely grateful for the hard work and expertise of the UK’s world-leading scientists, we’ve been guided by their advice throughout and we continue to do so,” Boris Johnson’s spokesman said.
“Scientists provide advice to the government, ministers ultimately decide.”
Ms Coffey’s comments come after a cross-party group of MPs warned the UK has 10 key lessons to learn from its handling of the pandemic so far.
They said testing capacity has been “inadequate” throughout the pandemic, while the decision to stop community testing early in the outbreak was “one of the most consequential made”.
Responding to the report, a Downing Street spokesman said: “This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.”
When it comes to care homes, opponents and some voices in the sector have accused the government of being too slow to react to what was happening.
Official guidance, which was in place until 12 March, said it was “very unlikely” that those receiving care in a care home or the community would become infected with the virus.
On 15 April, more than three weeks after the UK was put in lockdown to try to control the spread of COVID-19, testing was expanded to include care home staff, residents with symptoms and those being discharged from hospital back into care homes.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that guidance was first released on 25 February when there was “no transmission of COVID-19 in the community” and that “we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the number of deaths in care homes has “fallen significantly”.
“This morning’s statistics confirm that 27% of coronavirus deaths in England have taken place in care homes, which compares to a European average of around half,” he told MPs as he responded to an urgent question in the Commons.
Mr Hancock also said that 62% of care homes have not reported a case of COVID-19.
“But whatever the figures say we will not rest from doing whatever is humanly possible to protect our care homes from this appalling virus to make sure residents and care colleagues have the safety and security they deserve,” he added.
Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow social care minister, said the government had been “too slow” to act on COVID-19 in care homes.
She added that social care has “not had the same priority as the NHS” during the outbreak.
Sky News has reported extensively on the situation in care homes throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
This includes highlighting fears elderly patients were being discharged from hospital before they were well enough to return, as well as reporting a number of councils threatening to withhold funding to help care homes deal with the virus if they did not agree to take in COVID-19 patients.
Sky News revealed on Tuesday that more than 20 care homes in the northeast of England have sent a legal warning to their local council over fears of a collapse in the sector.