Keir Starmer, speaking at PMQs today, highlighted perhaps the most damaging aspect of the UK’s coronavirus response to date. As recently as 12 March, the only government advice on how to protect care home residents from Covid-19 stated “it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected”. However, 40 per cent of all deaths from the virus in England and Wales have now occurred in care homes.
During their exchange, Boris Johnson told Starmer it was “not true” that this advice was government policy, prompting the Labour leader to demand a return of the Prime Minister to the House of Commons to correct the record “at the earliest opportunity”.
Now, Johnson writes to Keir Starmer to accuse him of quoting Public Health England’s advice “selectively and misleading” by neglecting to the “critical context”. The context referred to is a line stating the guidance was “intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community”.
But this is not the great exoneration Downing Street may think it is. The problem is that this guidance remained in place until 13 March, more than a week after the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, confirmed publicly that it was “highly likely” community transmission had started and that the UK should proceed on the assumption that this was the case.
The guidance continued to say that cases in care homes were “very unlikely” for eight days after there was known community transmission.
Downing Street may feel it has found a get-out-of-jail-free card to dismiss the accusation of misleading parliament, but it does nothing to dispel the bottom line. The policy for care homes was inadequate and the effort to remedy it was, it seems, fatally slow. “Slow” is the word Starmer has turned to again and again as he characterises the government’s coronavirus response. Downing Street’s response does nothing to refute that accusation.