The most damning element of Dominic Cummings’ mesmerising seven-hour testimony before a parliamentary select committee this week – and probably the one most likely to dent the reputation (and possibly the careers) of both the health secretary and the prime minister – was his demolition of the government’s record on protecting care home residents over the past year.

In his testimony Cummings claimed that health secretary Matt Hancock had assured him at the start of the pandemic, in March last year, that elderly hospital patients would be tested before being discharged back to care homes, as part of a national drive to ‘put a shield’ around the sector while freeing up beds ahead of an expected surge in covid cases.

NHS guidance issued on 19 March did, indeed, suggest that care home residents should “not remain in an NHS bed” unless seriously ill, but two weeks later further guidance emerged advising that care home residents didn’t need a negative covid test before being discharged – and that even if elderly patients tested positive they could still be admitted back to their care homes if PPE-based practices were in place.

It would be another two weeks, in mid-April, before the government publicly claimed that all patients would be tested before being discharged. But by this stage around 25,000 elderly patients, many of them untested, had already been transferred out of hospital, leading the National Care Association chair Nadra Ahmed to tell the BBC that the government had “completely abandoned” the sector.

Statistics released just two weeks ago by the ONS suggest there were 11,706 covid-related deaths in care homes during the crucial months of March and April last year, contributing to a total of 40,000 such deaths that have occurred during the 12 months leading up to April this year.

It’s no surprise therefore that Hancock has now twice refused to directly address Cummings’ ‘shield’ claim: when answering an ‘urgent question’ on the matter in the Commons the next day, and then again a few hours later when presenting that day’s Downing Street covid briefing.

On the first occasion, addressing his fellow MPs in parliament, Hancock dodged the question, instead drawing a parallel with the situation elsewhere in the UK. “The Scottish government, with its responsibilities for social care, also had to respond to the same challenges and dilemmas that we did,” he asserted. “It was the same challenge for the administration in Edinburgh as it was here in Westminster.”

But Hancock may have simply been aware of revelations in the Scottish media a day earlier relating to covid-related death rates north of the border. New figures from the Care Inspectorate and National Records of Scotland – released only after an FoI transparency battle with The Scotsman, The Herald, DC Thomson and STV – show the rates were more than six times higher in larger facilities across Scotland.

At the Downing Street briefing, Hancock appeared to fall back on the argument that the testing capacity simply wasn’t in place when the patient discharges began, but offered no explanation as to why the discharge policy wasn’t then delayed.

So Cummings’ claim regarding Hancock’s failures still looks robust – fact checks by various news outlets certainly back it up – and renders prime minister Boris Johnson’s lazy follow-up response (er… simply: “No, I don’t think so”), when his former spad linked those failures to thousands of unnecessary deaths, as chillingly hollow.

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