LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday the situation in care homes had improved, after his health minister denied Britain had prioritised hospitals over many elderly people in homes in its fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
A Reuters investigation found policies designed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed pushed a greater burden onto care homes which struggled to get access to tests and protective equipment.
Johnson and his government have been criticised by opposition parties and some scientists for their response to the outbreak of the coronavirus, with many raising questions over the testing strategy, provision of protective equipment and timing of a lockdown which has all but shut the economy.
The government has countered that it took the right decisions at the right time, but has also acknowledged an earlier mass testing programme would have been beneficial and that it has more to do in dealing with the virus’ spread in care homes.
Asked by a member of the public during a question session on Sky News whether the government had sacrificed the elderly in residential homes to ensure the health service was not overrun, health minister Matt Hancock said: “No we didn’t do this ... we have, from the start, worked very hard to protect people in care homes.”
Hancock said the government had put a “huge amount of effort and resources behind supporting care homes”, but Britain had not had the capacity to test more widely early in the outbreak.
Asked about the situation in care homes by opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, Johnson told parliament: “He is absolutely right to say there is an epidemic going on in care homes which is something I bitterly regret and we have been working very hard for weeks to get it down.
“He is not right in what he just said about the state of the epidemic in care homes. If he looks at the figures in the last few days there has been a palpable improvement. We must hope that that continues and we will ensure that it does continue.”
Ministers have repeatedly said that questions over Britain’s handling of the crisis should come after it has been overcome.
But on Tuesday, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the United Kingdom overtook Italy to report the highest official death toll from the new coronavirus in Europe, prompting fresh questions over its approach.
After more than six weeks of lockdown, Britain will review its stringent social distancing measures on Thursday, and set out details of its plan for the next phase on Sunday.
Officials suggest there will be a gradual move towards re-opening businesses.
The Times reported the government has drawn up a three-stage plan to ease the lockdown, with the first involving small shops reopening alongside outdoor workplaces.
Large shopping centres would be in the second phase with more people encouraged to go into work, and pubs, restaurants, hotels and leisure centres would be among the last to open, it said.
“This is not going to be a case of flicking a switch and people will have to prepare for a different type of normal,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.
“We will obviously want to ensure that any easements that we do make are carefully monitored and we aren’t doing things which risk increasing the rate of infection.”
Editing by Michael Holden and Stephen Addison