Some hospital patients with coronavirus may have been transferred into care homes, seeding it into communities, a senior minister has admitted.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said there could have been “some instances” where those without symptoms were moved untested into care homes, which have been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Previously, ministers insisted adequate advice was given to care homes, despite them being told until as late as 12 March an outbreak of the disease in them was “very unlikely” and all residents and staff with symptoms were not eligible for tests until 15 April.
The admission came as the head of Care England, the largest body representing private care homes in the country, said the government prioritised the NHS over the care sector.
So far around 15,000 elderly residents have died with the virus in England and Wales.
Mr Eustice denied “the caricature that we took an approach that was wrong” at the daily Downing Street briefing.
“Very early on in this epidemic we had protocols in place for care homes, there was guidance as to how they should approach this,” he claimed.
“As the situation developed then more stringent policies were introduced.”
But he accepted: “In those early weeks there will have been some instances where people may have been discharged who were asymptomatic.
“And there may have been some small number of instances where they may have been showing symptoms but would have been isolated – that was the guidance at the time that was in place.”
Labour has accused the government of being “too slow” to tackle the spread of coronavirus in care homes.
Shadow social care minister Liz Kendall said: “Social care has not had the same priority as the NHS and these services have not been treated as inexplicably linked.”
Sam Monaghan, chief executive of Methodist Homes, which runs 222 care homes and schemes, also claimed there is a “stark disconnect between the ongoing government rhetoric on support for care homes and the lived reality on the ground”.
He insisted to the Commons science select committee that there is still no routine testing for all residents and staff, while PPE remains in short supply, with care companies having to buy it “on the open market”.
Speculation has mounted about whether the ground is already being prepared for the fallout of the pandemic in an inevitable public inquiry.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told Sky News on Tuesday when quizzed about the care homes response that: “If the science was wrong, the advice at the time was wrong. I’m not surprised if people then think we made a wrong decision.”