Covid gurus Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance warned that shielding wasn’t ‘very effective’ at start of pandemic – yet policy affecting 2.2m Brits wasn’t dropped until April 2021
Over 2million people were asked to shield during the pandemic even though the Government’s top advisors had told the Prime Minister it was not ‘very effective’.
The revelations suggest clinically ‘extremely vulnerable’ patients may have been cruelly and unnecessarily isolated from loved ones for months.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, said in a WhatsApp message in August 2020 that implementing the measure had not been ‘easy or very effective’.
And Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, added that he would personally ‘think twice’ about following shielding guidelines himself, unless it was to protect the NHS – which was not the main objective.
Boris Johnson raised the prospect of giving over-65s ‘a choice’ between shielding from the virus or taking what he hoped would be an ‘ever-diminishing risk’ of living a more normal life.
Sir Patrick Vallance (right), the Chief Scientific Adviser, said in a WhatsApp message in August 2020 that implementing the measure had not been ‘easy or very effective’. And Professor Sir Chris Whitty (left), the Chief Medical Officer, added that he would personally ‘think twice’ about following shielding guidelines himself, unless it was to protect the NHS – which was not the main objective
The then prime minister compared over-65s’ risk of dying from Covid to that of ‘falling down stairs’, adding: ‘And we don’t stop older people from using stairs.’
But, despite reservations, ministers still reintroduced shielding nationally during subsequent national lockdowns.
In the worst affected parts of the country that were placed under local lockdowns, many effectively shielded for most of the pandemic.
The discussions come from leaked WhatsApp messages taken from the phone of then health secretary Matt Hancock and seen by the Telegraph.
They also reveal Mr Hancock rejected Sir Chris’ advice to test for Covid all residents going into English care homes, meaning some may have taken the virus in with them, fuelling deadly outbreaks.
KEY CLAIMS OF THE LOCKDOWN FILES INVESTIGATION
A fresh cache of 100,000 text and WhatsApp messages leaked to the Daily Telegraph by the ex-journalist who ghost-wrote Hancock’s pandemic diaries claimed:
- Matt Hancock rejected the Chief Medical Officer’s call to test all residents going into English care homes for Covid
- A minister in Mr Hancock’s department said restrictions on visitors to care homes were ‘inhumane’ but residents remained isolated many months on
- Mr Hancock’s adviser arranged for a personal test to be couriered for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s child at a time of national shortage
- Mr Hancock told former chancellor George Osborne, then-editor of the Evening Standard, ‘I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!’ as he pushed for favourable front-page coverage
- Mr Osborne warned Mr Hancock that ‘no one thinks testing is going well’ in late 2020
- Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, revealed he was going ‘quietly crackers’ about the UK’s shortage of test kits
A message from the CMO early in April 2020 – about a month into the pandemic – said that there should be testing for ‘all going into care homes’.
But Mr Hancock did not follow the guidance, telling his advisers that it ‘muddies the waters’.
Instead, he introduced guidance that made testing compulsory only for those entering care homes from hospital.
Prior to the guidance, care homes had been told that negative tests were not required even for hospital patients.
The guidance stating that those coming in from the community should be tested was eventually introduced on August 14.
Between April 17 and August 13, 2020, a total of 17,678 people died of Covid in care homes in England.
Lindsay Jackson, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said: ‘The failure to protect care homes led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, like my mum’s, and meant hospitals became even more overwhelmed and even longer lockdowns were required to prevent further loss of life.
‘The consequences of this could not be more horrific and there needs to be an immediate and serious police investigation in parallel with the inquiry.’
Christina McAnea, general secretary of the union Unison, which represents care home workers, said: ‘Lives were needlessly lost because ministers effectively abandoned staff and residents.
‘Many care workers had to make their own safety kit from bin bags, couldn’t access testing for months and were pressured into coming in when they should have been off work with Covid.
‘The government is to blame for this disaster.
Boris Johnson raised the prospect of giving over-65s ‘a choice’ between shielding from the virus or taking what he hoped would be an ‘ever-diminishing risk’ of living a more normal life
The shielding guidance was designed to protect people who were most at risk from getting the virus (stock)
‘Staff, care home residents and their families paid an unacceptable price. Lessons must now be learned through the independent public inquiry.’
The shielding guidance was designed to protect people who were most at risk from getting the virus.
When it was first introduced in March 2020, it told ‘extremely vulnerable’ people that they should not leave the house at all other than for medical appointments. This was in place for certain cancer patients, organ transplant recipients and others.
Those affected were advised to socially distance from other members of their households, including sleeping separately and cleaning shared bathrooms after every use.
While the measures were loosened as time wore on, the prolonged isolation affected people’s psychological well-being.
More than a third of those who were shielding reported a deterioration in mental health, according to the Office of National Statistics.
The discussion between Mr Johnson and his advisers came on August 9, 2020, just over a week after the Government had lifted national shielding guidance for the first time.
The policy was reintroduced across the country in November 2020 during the second lockdown, and then again nationally for the first three months of 2021.
The comments about care home testing by Sir Chris were discussed on April 14, 2020, the day before the Government published its ‘Covid 19: adult social care action plan’.
In a WhatsApp conversation about its finer details, Mr Hancock told his advisers: ‘Chris Whitty has done an evidence review and now recommend testing of all going into care homes, and segregation whilst awaiting result. This is obviously a good positive step & we must put into the doc.’
However, by the end of the day Mr Hancock appeared to have changed his mind – and he requested the removal of the commitment to begin testing admissions from the community.
In one message, Mr Hancock said: ‘Tell me if I’m wrong but I would rather leave it out and just commit to test & isolate ALL going into care from hospital.
‘I do not think the community commitment adds anything and it muddies the waters.’
Mr Hancock later told the health and social care select committee that ‘the strongest route of the virus into care homes, unfortunately, is community transmission, so it was staff testing that was most important thing for keeping people safe in care homes’.
An independent report by the Department of Health and Social Care has also found that there was ‘potential exposure to Covid-19 in care home settings’ from factors including ‘new admissions from the community’.
The WhatsApp messages also show comments by the social care minister, Helen Whately, where she warns that restrictions on visitors to care homes are ‘inhumane’ – months before they were finally lifted.
She later warned Mr Hancock that the elderly were at risk of ‘just giving up’ because they had been isolated for so long.
Mr Hancock said in his book, Pandemic Diaries, that the ‘tragic but honest truth’ at the start of April was that ‘we don’t have enough testing capacity’.
In the first two years of the pandemic, there were more than 40,000 Covid deaths in care homes in England.
Helen Whately, who is now health minister, yesterday told the Commons the leaked messages give a ‘limited’ and misleading view of the Government’s decision-making around care homes during the pandemic.
Labour said the Government’s promise to throw a protective ring around care homes was proven false by the more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages.
Responding to an urgent question in the Commons, Ms Whately stressed the situation in care homes was ‘extremely difficult in the pandemic’, adding: ‘The importance of testing was never in doubt and there was full agreement on that in every part of Government, from the chief medical officer to the health secretary to the prime minister.
‘But in a situation where we had the capacity to test at most a few thousand each day, tough decisions about prioritisation had to be made, decisions that were taken on the best public health advice available.’
Shadow health minister Liz Kendall, who asked the urgent question, said: ‘Throughout the Covid pandemic, ministers repeatedly claimed they threw a protective ring around England’s care homes and always followed the evidence and scientific advice, but WhatsApp messages from the former health secretary revealed in today’s Telegraph suggest nothing could be further from the truth.’