A Cabinet minister has defended guidance given to care homes in early March which said it was “very unlikely” residents would become infected with coronavirus.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said at the time there were “very, very low levels of death and spread of the virus”.
However, Office for National Statistics figures show five care home residents had died with Covid-19 by the time the Government advice was withdrawn on March 13.
And England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty had warned earlier in the month that it was “highly likely” community transmission of coronavirus in the UK was already happening.
Mr Lewis’s comments follow a row between Boris Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday over the official advice given to care homes.
Sir Keir said the Government had been “too slow to protect people in care homes” and referred to the guidance in place until March 12, which said it was “very unlikely” that those receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.
Mr Johnson told him it “wasn’t true that the advice said that” and said the Government “brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown”.
The Labour leader then sent a letter to the PM asking him to “correct the record” in the Commons and to “recognise that this was official Government guidance regarding care homes”.
In his reply, Mr Johnson accused Sir Keir of “selectively and misleadingly” quoting the advice, and pointed to the preceding sentence in the advice which said the guidance was “intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community”.
Mr Lewis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning: “First of all I think it was disappointing to see Keir (Starmer) sort of quoting things out of context at PMQs and playing a bit of politics at a stage where I think people just want to see us focused on looking after people’s healthcare.”
Low levels of deaths
He added: “We had clear guidance that we were giving to care homes at that point in time at that early stage in March we had very, very low levels of death and spread of the virus and we were giving guidance to care homes around isolation for those patients who required it in terms of having symptoms from the virus.”
On March 13, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said the number of people infected in the UK at that point could be between 5,000 and 10,000.
Meanwhile, Public Health England was urging unwell people to stay away from visiting care homes, but said they should stay open otherwise.
And on March 10, England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the start of the UK peak of the coronavirus epidemic was expected within the next fortnight.