By Bill Heaney
On Monday, when asked why care home deaths had been so high, the Prime Minister said that “too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have.”
Labour leader Keith Starmer said: “That has caused huge offence to frontline care workers. It has now been 48 hours. Will the Prime Minister apologise to care workers?”
But the POM wasn’t having any of that. He said: “The last thing I wanted to do was to blame care workers for what has happened, or for any of them to think that I was blaming them, because they have worked incredibly hard throughout this crisis, looking after some of the most vulnerable people in our country and doing an outstanding job, and 257 of them have lost their lives.
“When it comes to taking blame, I take full responsibility for what has happened. But the one thing that nobody knew early on during this pandemic was that the virus was being passed asymptomatically from person to person in the way that it is, and that is why the guidance and the procedures changed.
“It is thanks to the hard work of careworkers that we have now got incidents and outbreaks down in our care homes to the lowest level since the crisis began. That is thanks to our careworkers and I pay tribute to them.”
But Starmer hit back: “That is not an apology, and it just will not wash. The Prime Minister said that too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have.
“It was clear what he was saying. The Prime Minister must understand just how raw this is for many people on the frontline and for those who have lost loved ones. I quote Mark Adams, who runs a social care charity, who spoke yesterday. He said:’ ‘You’ve got 1.6 million social care workers going into work to protect our parents, our grandparents, our children, putting their own health and potentially lives at risk.
“‘And then to get the most senior man in the country turning round and blaming them on what has been an absolute travesty of leadership from the Government, I just think it is appalling’.
“Those are his words. I ask the Prime Minister again: will he apologise to careworkers? Yes or no?”
However, Boris said: “You keep saying I blamed or tried to blame care workers, and that is simply not the case. The reality is that we now know things about the way the coronavirus is passed from person to person without symptoms that we just did not know.
“That is why we instituted the care home action plan on 15 April. That is why we changed the procedures. Perhaps he did know that it was being transmitted asymptomatically—I did not hear it at the time.
“Perhaps Captain Hindsight would like to tell us that he knew that it was being transmitted asymptomatically. Of course it was necessary to change our procedures.
“I want to thank our care workers for what they have done, and this Government will continue to invest massively in our care homes and in our care workers. By the way, it is this Government, as I said just now, that put up the living wage by record amounts, and that is something that we can do directly to help every care worker in the country.”
Mr Starmer said: “By refusing to apologise, the Prime Minister rubs salt into the wounds of the very people that he stood at his front door and clapped.
“The Prime Minister and the Health Secretary must be the only people left in the country who think that they put a “protective ring” around care homes.
“Those on the frontline know that that was not the case. I quote one care home manager from ITN News. She said this: ‘I’m absolutely livid at the fact that he says we didn’t follow the procedures. Because the care assistants, the nurses, everyone in the care home, have worked so hard. And then he’s got the audacity to blame us.’
“Those are her words. What would the Prime Minister like to say to that care home manager?”
The PM responded: “What I would like to say to the lady in question, and indeed to every care home worker in the country, is that this Government appreciate the incredible work that they have done, and we thank them for the incredible work they have done.
“Let me say further that we will invest in our care homes and we will reform the care home sector. I hope, by the way, that we will do it on the basis of cross-party consensus and get a lasting solution to the problems in our care homes and the difficulties many people face in funding the cost of their old age. That is what we want to do.
“That is what this Government have pledged to do after 30 years of inaction, and I hope Mr Starmer will join us in doing it.”
The Labour leader told the PM: “I am glad to hear it. I gently point out that his Government have been in power for 10 years, with no plan and no White Paper. Of course we will join in plans for reforming social care, but 10 years have been wasted.
“The reality is that more than 19,000 care home residents have died from covid-19. It is a far higher number when we include excess deaths.
“Overall, around one in 20 care home residents are estimated to have died from the virus. One in 20—it is chilling.
“These are extraordinary numbers, yet the Prime Minister has consistently ducked responsibility for this. Will he accept that it is not care workers who are to blame; it is his Government?”
But the PM didn’t swallow that lure. He said: “I have made it absolutely clear that this Government takes responsibility for everything that we have done throughout this crisis.
“Of course I pay tribute once again to the work of every care worker in the country and I thank them, but what we have also done is put forward a care home action plan that has helped our care workers and our care home industry to get the incidence of coronavirus right down in every care home in the country to the lowest level, and we are now putting in monthly testing for every resident in our care homes and weekly testing for every care home worker.
“That is thanks to the fantastic efforts of everybody involved in NHS testing and tracing—and I think Mr Starmer should pay tribute to them as well.”
But Mr Starmer declined to put his sword back in its scabbard. He said: “The Prime Minister continues to insult those on the frontline by not taking these issues seriously. The Prime Minister must recognise that huge mistakes have been made. Two months ago I highlighted the weakness of the early guidance on care homes. The Prime Minister, typically flippant, simply said it was ‘not true’.
“There were repeated warnings from the care sector and repeated delays in providing protective equipment —this was not hindsight; they were raised here day in, day out and week in, week out. It was not hindsight; it was real-time for the frontline.
“It was the same with routine testing. And the decision to discharge 25,000 people to care homes without tests was clearly a mistake. Will the Prime Minister simply accept that his Government were just too slow to act on care homes, knows very well—or he should know very well—that the understanding of the disease has changed dramatically in the months that we have had it.
“When he looks at the action plan that we brought in to help our care workers, I think he would appreciate the vast amount of work that they have done, the PPE that they have been supplied with and the testing that they have been supplied with. That has helped them to get the incidence of the disease down to record lows, and it has enabled us to get on with our work, as the Government, in getting this country through this epidemic—getting this country back on its feet.
“That is what this country wants to see. We have stuck to our plan to open up our economy gradually and cautiously; one week he is in favour of it, the next week he is against it. What this country wants to see is a steady, stable approach to getting our country back on its feet. That is what we are delivering.”