Hancock denies ignoring Whitty's advice on Covid tests for care homes

Leaked WhatsApp message said Hancock did not believe testing commitment "adds anything"
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Former health secretary Matt Hancock has denied ignoring the chief medical officer’s advice to test all residents entering care homes for Covid at the height of the pandemic.

A series of WhatsApp messages leaked to the Telegraph have revealed Sir Chris Whitty told Hancock in early April 2020 that there should be testing for “all going into care homes”.

The newspaper, which says it has obtained 100,000 of Hancock’s WhatsApp messages during the pandemic from the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, reported that Hancock said doing so would “muddy the waters” and “get in the way” of the 100,000 tests a day target he set himself early in the pandemic.  

But Hancock has today said the reporting misreprented his position and that his decision to commit only to testing people coming from hospitals and not the community was down to limited testing capacity. 

The exchange reportedly took place a day before the government published guidance for care homes that made testing mandatory only for residents entering from hospital but not from the community. Before the guidance was published on 2 April, care homes had been told that negative tests were not required for anyone – some 25,000 people were discharged from hospital into care without tests, which led to the accusation that care homes were “thrown to the wolves”.

Guidance calling for those coming in from the community to be tested was introduced on 14 August.

The Telegraph reported last night that Hancock had sent his aides a message initially endorsing the chief medic’s advice, saying: “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.”

One of his advisers said they had sent the request “to action”, but later that day Hancock said he did not want to include a commitment to testing people coming into care homes from the community in the guidance.

He also appeared to reject a suggestion for the document to say it was government’s “ambition to test everyone going into a care home from the community where care homes want”.

He was quoted as saying: “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.”

However, Hancock has now pushed back against the claim that the messages show he rejected clinical advice, saying the decision not to expand the commitment was because of constraints on testing capacity.

His spokesperson said: "These stolen messages have been doctored to create a false story that Matt rejected clinical advice on care home testing. This is flat wrong."

A source close to Hancock told PA: “Having not been approached in advance by the Telegraph, we have reviewed the messages overnight.

“The Telegraph intentionally excluded reference to a meeting with the testing team from the WhatsApp. This is critical, because Matt was supportive of Chris Whitty’s advice, held a meeting on its deliverability, told it wasn’t deliverable, and insisted on testing all those who came from hospitals.

“The Telegraph have been informed that their headline is wrong, and Matt is considering all options available to him.

“This major error by Isabel Oakeshott and the Telegraph shows why the proper place for analysis like this is the Inquiry, not a partial, agenda-driven leak of confidential documents.”

Responding to the story, James Bethell, who was a health minister at the time the messages were sent, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "The thing that held us back was not a dispute about the clinical advice, it was simply the operational ability to administer tests."

Lord Bethell said those leaving hospital had to be prioritised for tests, the supply of which was "very, very limited".

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