UK minister admits main coronavirus focus was NHS rather than care homes | World news

A cabinet minister has acknowledged the government focused more on the NHS than care homes in the early stages of the outbreak, as the UK prepares to publish daily death figures for the community as well as hospitals.

As the outbreak continues to worsen in care homes, George Eustice, the environment secretary, defended the government’s handling of the crisis for older people, while acknowledging its approach had not been “perfect”.

The death toll from coronavirus in care homes will be announced daily from Wednesday after figures this week revealed a sharp rise of more than 4,300 deaths in a fortnight in England and Wales and care operators said they were at the centre of the crisis.

On Wednesday, Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said he thought there may be at least as many deaths in care homes and the community as in hospitals. “I would push my neck out that it is plausible that there are now as many Covid-labelled deaths occurring out of hospital as there are in hospitals in England,” he said.

Asked whether the risk of spread in care homes had been overlooked, Eustice told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t accept it was overlooked but obviously there was a real focus on the NHS because there were concerns it might be overwhelmed.

“But in the case of care homes we’ve always recognised there was more vulnerability there and that residents were more susceptible to this virus. That is why a lot of things were done in making sure they could get some PPE – we all know there have been challenges with PPE.”

He said the NHS procurement system had taken time to set up to serve 15,000 care homes and in the meantime the government had been distributing equipment through local resilience forums.

“It has not been perfect, we recognise that,” he added.

The government has been criticised for being slow to realise that coronavirus was spreading unchecked in care homes, with initial advice in mid-March only that unwell visitors should be banned.

Testing in care homes has also been criticised as all residents with symptoms have still not been getting checked despite the government’s promise two weeks ago that this would be rolled out.

With the government now promising tests for all care home residents regardless of their symptoms, Eustice said the capacity for tests had been hugely scaled up and the ability to test everyone in residential settings was now there.

“We got it there as quickly as we can,” he said.

On the same programme, Prof John Newton, the government’s coordinator on testing, said he was “pretty confident” that the target of 100,000 tests a day would be hit by the end of the week.

He said the latest widening of the eligibility criteria meant the next step would be providing “a test to everyone who needs one” with symptoms.

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