It’s not good enough to claim ignorance over Covid deaths in care homes

The biggest mistake made at the start of the pandemic was letting people out of hospitals and into nursing homes without being tested for coronavirus. As a result, those infected with Covid spread the disease to other vulnerable residents, causing thousands of deaths as a result. The High Court has now ruled the policy was unlawful and directly led to the high number of deaths in homes. This has significant political and legal implications.

At the PM’s questions yesterday, Boris Johnson said he was sorry about what had happened but that “it’s been an incredibly difficult time” and not much is known about the behavior of the virus. In particular, it was not recognized that it could be transmitted asymptomatically. Similarly, a spokesman for former Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Public Health England had not shared with ministers what they knew about asymptomatic transmission and “wished it had been made aware of it sooner”.

In its defence, the government pointed out that there simply was not enough testing capacity available at the time. In addition, the abject isolation, almost incarceration, that elderly residents had to endure as a result was rightly felt to be inhumane – although later it would not have been necessary if the virus had been kept out of the homes.

The court accepted that in reaching the verdict, “forbearance is not permissible.” The question is whether “the decisions taken fell outside the range of reasonable decisions open to government in the light of the knowledge and circumstances available at the time”.

One thing in particular was known at the time: older people were the most vulnerable group and had they been better protected the country’s total lockdown to ‘save the NHS’ might not have been necessary. The Supreme Court said that as of March 2020, while there was no scientific evidence that asymptomatic transmission was occurring, it was acknowledged by the experts that such transmission is possible. It is not good enough for ministers to claim ignorance now.

They not only had to weigh the likelihood of non-symptomatic transmission, but also the very serious consequences of such transmission. You can’t hide behind officials now. It’s hard to argue against the charge that they failed to protect nursing home residents by prioritizing the goal of freeing up hospital beds. It’s not good enough to claim ignorance over Covid deaths in care homes

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