A close reading: When Boris Johnson blames care homes over Covid-19, he’s really blaming himself

The Prime Minister claims “too many care homes didn’t follow procedures” – but his government made the rules.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Boris Johnson has been accused of “cowardice” and “a huge slap in the face” by the care sector for claiming care homes didn’t “follow procedures” as coronavirus spread.

Although No 10 has attempted to water his comments down, the damage has been done – the Prime Minister has been interpreted as blaming care homes and care workers for the crisis of infections and deaths that engulfed them during the pandemic's peak.

What a close reading of his comments reveals, however, is that blame can only be placed at his government’s door:

“One of the things the crisis has shown is that we need to think about how we organise our social care package better, and how we make sure we look after people better who are in social care.”

This is undeniable – publicly-funded social care currently relies on shrinking local government budgets, and struggles to provide for an ageing population and a rising number of working-age adults in need of provision. The alternatives are costly private care, or reliance on family and friends. It is an unsustainable model, and the question of how better to structure it is one that successive governments over the past decade have left unanswered.

So on the surface, this comment from Johnson sounds reasonable. However, it is breathtakingly disingenuous. In his first speech last year as Prime Minister on 24 July 2019, Johnson said, “I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.”

This “clear plan” did not materialise in the Conservative manifesto in November 2019. Three months later, this clear lack of a plan became even clearer in Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s letter to MPs on 6 March 2020, signalling cross-party talks on the matter and inviting them to submit their “proposed solutions”.

A green paper to review the policy, announced by former chancellor Philip Hammond in March 2017 for the end of that year, became a grim running joke in the sector – it was delayed more than five times and never materialised.

So yes, Johnson is correct that social care is poorly organised and in need of overdue reform – but that is because his government, in common with its predecessors, promised change and failed to deliver. 

“We discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have, but we’re learning lessons the whole time.”

Again, this is a remarkable sleight of hand from the PM. Firstly, because “the procedures” he refers to were misjudged by the government.

Until 13 March, amid footage of care homes ravaged by coronavirus in Spain and Italy and a rising proportion of Covid-19 deaths in care homes in England and Wales, government guidance still stated that: “It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”

On 19 March, hospitals were told by NHS and government guidance to discharge all patients who didn’t need hospital beds – many of whom were moved to care homes, with no testing. It was another four weeks until the government decided that all patients discharged from hospital should be tested for Covid-19.

And it was only on 2 April, over a week after the UK’s official lockdown, that the Department of Health and Social Care finally told relatives and friends not to visit care homes except in “exceptional” situations.

A lack of testing and shortages of personal protective equipment meant that care home staff were unable to isolate suspected cases. Care workers – on low pay, agency contracts, and either ineligible for statutory sick pay or unable to live on it – could not afford to self-isolate if they contracted symptoms.

“One of the most important things is to fund them properly, so we’re putting another £600m into Covid-compliant care homes, but we’ll also be looking at ways to make sure the care sector long-term is properly organised and supported so that that absolutely crucial part of people’s lives is properly cared for.”

All funding increases are welcome but “looking at ways” to fund social care for the long term is a far cry from the “clear plan” Johnson boasted of over a year ago.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Free trial CSS