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SAGE didn’t consider ‘obvious’ Covid-19 risks for care home residents, Chris Whitty admits

Ministers and experts didn’t consider care home residents were being put at risk of Covid-19 because of agency staff working across multiple homes, England’s chief medical officer admitted today.  

Part-time carers and bank staff who were infected but showed no symptoms were able to move freely between care homes at the start of the crisis without being tested. 

Staff on zero hours contracts also went to work despite feeling ill because they were not guaranteed sick pay, which helped the disease to race through the sector and kill more than 30,000 vulnerable residents.  

In a virtual grilling by MPs, Professor Chris Whitty acknowledged the error seemed glaringly ‘obvious in retrospect’ but had not been recognised earlier on in the pandemic.

Speaking to the Commons Health and Social Care Committee today, he said: ‘The fact that people working in multiple homes, people who were not paid sick leave, that is a clear risk… these were major risks in health and social care settings.

‘So I think there are a lot of things that we have learned that we will, we can now do a lot better in social care, and I don’t think any of us would look back on what has happened in social care and say the ideal advice was given.’  

Boris Johnson provoked fury earlier this month by implying care homes were responsible for their virus death toll by failing to follow correct procedures.

But Professor Whitty told MPs today his ‘enthusiasm for blaming people for anything is zero, adding: ‘That is absolutely not the way we deal with any kind of situation in health and social care and that’s across the board. ‘

I think it’s clear that every country that has a care sector has not handled this well.

‘The UK is one country that has not handled this well in terms of issues in social care but the same is true, as previous speakers have said, the numbers are very similar or even higher in terms of proportions of deaths in almost every country where you look at this.

‘So this is across the board, this has been a major problem… I think there are a lot of things that we have learned that we will, we can now do a lot better in social care, and I don’t think any of us would look back on what has happened in social care and say the ideal advice was given and this is the fault of anyone. I personally would shy away from that.’

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said there had been a change around protecting care home residents ‘and it is that knowledge, some of which was missing I think when we first started’.

She said one area of increased knowledge was that people could be asymptomatic or have ‘very non-specific illness’.

Newer measures included testing programmes in care homes, infection control programmes and swift action for local outbreaks, she added.

Meanwhile, Professor Whitty and one of the Government’s prominent scientific advisers butted heads about whether the UK was too slow to enforce lockdown during the virtual committee meeting.

In the uncharacteristically bad-tempered interview, England’s chief medical officer claimed there were ‘operational difficulties’ that made it difficult to shut the country down in a week.  

During a virtual grilling by MPs, Professor Whitty denied there was no ‘huge delay’ between ministers being advised to implement the draconian measures and actually following through on the actions. 

He appeared to contradict his fellow adviser Sir Jeremy Farrar, who told the health select committee moments earlier he ‘believed lockdown was enforced too late’ and ‘should have come earlier’, in a sign of a rift between the UK’s top experts.

It emerged last week that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had advised the Government to implement lockdown on March 16. But Boris Johnson did not announce the measures until March 23. 

Professor Whitty was quizzed about whether enforcing the draconian measures a week earlier would have saved tens of thousands of lives, as has been suggested by numerous scientists including Neil Ferguson, nicknamed ‘Professor Lockdown’ for his grim modelling that swayed ministers into shutting down the UK.

The CMO blamed poor pandemic preparations, testing capacity and a lack of PPE for the UK having had the worst outbreak in Europe — with almost 300,000 confirmed cases and over 45,000 deaths.

And he launched a staunch defence of the government’s actions over the Covid-19 pandemic, saying mass testing had to be abandoned early on in the crisis because health chiefs didn’t have enough to capacity to cope with the size of the outbreak. 

But he accepted ministers and experts failed to recognise ‘obvious’ risks, such as care home residents being at risk from workers moving between homes and spreading Covid-19.

In a thinly-veiled dig during a heated exchange with committee chair Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary for six years until 2018, Professor Whitty said: ‘If we wished to build this capacity up, we could have done it in previous years.

Asked repeatedly if he was ‘content’ about the timing of lockdown, Professor Whitty accused Mr Hunt of trying to oversimplify the ‘complicated’ series of events that led up to decision on March 23.

Professor Whitty said: ‘Ministers at the time, who were put in an incredibly difficult position, in my view, followed the advice given by SAGE… with a delay that was no more than you would reasonably expect for what are really very difficult things to operationalise and decide.

‘I’m not saying now, and I’m not going to say at any point, to be clear, that there was huge delay between the advice that ministers received, given the enormity of the difficulties that we were asking of people and the practical implications of what was being done.’ 

The chief medical officer admitted that quite a lot of the changes implemented before lockdown likely were already driving the R down below one.  

Recently, an outpouring of scientists have suggested that lockdown was unnecessary and that simple social distancing measures would have been sufficient. 

Professor Whitty’s short-tempered comments came just moments after fellow SAGE member, Sir Jeremy Farrar, tole MPs the UK shut down society too late.

Sir Jeremy, director of the Wellcome Trust and a professor of tropical medicine, said: ‘Yes, I believe lockdown was too late, I believe lockdown should have come in earlier. 

‘And indeed, in the weekend following that SAGE meeting [where ministers were advised to shut down on March 16], there were pressure and urgency to lock down immediately, within the next 24 hours of that weekend, in the coming week. 

‘And I think that delay did lead to the epidemic expanding faster than would have been needed if the lockdown had been imposed earlier, and that week was a critical week for the subsequent events in the epidemic.’ 

There was ‘not enough urgency’ in January and February, according to Sir Jeremy. ‘If I now look back on my time on the Sage committee, I regret that Sage wasn’t more blunt in its advice and wasn’t more robust. But it didn’t have a job in holding people to account, unfortunately, for delivery of interventions that were made.’ 

He added: ‘The UK was slow to put in place testing, to put in place extra clinical capacity, and to make sure that healthcare workers were protected with the PPE. And as a result subsequent events led to the epidemic taking off in a way in the UK, which was not the same as in Korea, Germany, or in Singapore, Vietnam.’ 

Last month, Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and member of SAGE, said the UK should have gone into lockdown earlier and that not doing so had cost ‘a lot of lives’.

His comments were echoed by former Sage member Professor Neil Ferguson, who said coronavirus deaths in the UK could have been halved if the Government had introduced the lockdown a week earlier.

Professor Whitty said last week’s comments about lockdown by England’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, had been misinterpreted.

Sir Patrick said that SAGE advised on March 16 that more draconian measures were needed, on top of the social distancing, working from home and hand-washing protocols that were already in place.

Professor Whitty said today that Sir Patrick had not been referring to full legal lockdown, but the advice on avoiding leisurely travel and meeting up with friends that Mr Johnson issued that day. 

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