Boris Johnson has accused Sir Keir Starmer of “selectively and misleadingly” quoting from official guidance which said in March that it was “very unlikely” care home residents would become infected with Covid-19.
The Prime Minister and Labour leader clashed over the issue at PMQs in the Commons on Wednesday, during which Mr Johnson admitted that the number of deaths in the sector had been “too high”.
Figures released this week suggested that care home deaths accounted for some 40% of coronavirus-related fatalities registered in England and Wales in the week ending May 1.
Mr Johnson replied: “No, it wasn’t true that the advice said that, and actually we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown.”
The Labour leader then sent a letter to the PM asking him to “correct the record” in the Commons and to “recognise that this was official Government guidance regarding care homes”.
In his reply, Mr Johnson wrote: “I am disappointed that in the House today you chose to quote Public Health England (PHE) advice selectively and misleadingly, and I stand by my comments.”
The PM pointed to the sentence preceding the one quoted by Sir Keir, which said the guidance was “intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community”.
Mr Johnson said the Labour leader “neglected to provide the critical context at the start of the guidance”.
Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, told the daily Downing Street press conference that “we did not recognise there was any sustained community transmission” before March 13.
However, by March 12 there had been 31 coronavirus-related deaths in England, including one in a care home, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis of death registration data.
On the same day, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said the number of people infected in the UK at that point could be between 5,000 and 10,000. Meanwhile, PHE was urging unwell people to stay away from visiting care homes, but said they should stay open otherwise.
Earlier that month, on March 5, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told MPs it was “highly likely” there is “community transmission” of coronavirus in the UK.
And on March 10, England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the start of the UK peak of the coronavirus epidemic was expected within the next fortnight.
Analysis of official figures suggests there have been just under 41,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the UK in total.
Pressed on suggestions the Government had failed to get a grip on the situation in care homes, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told the Downing Street press conference: “There is more that we can do, and our whole focus now needs to be on ensuring that care homes are guided through the weeks and months ahead.
“And we protect as many people as we possibly can within them.”
Mr Johnson said it had been an “appalling epidemic” and that the final death toll would be “stark” and “deeply horrifying” as he sought to explain why the Government has stopped publishing international comparisons at the daily Downing Street press briefing.
He told Sir Keir that such comparisons are “premature” because “the correct and final way of making these comparisons will be when we have all the excess death totals for all the relevant countries”.
“I’m not going to try to pretend to the House that the figures, when they are finally confirmed, are anything other than stark and deeply, deeply horrifying.
“This has been an appalling epidemic.
“What I can tell the House is that we are getting those numbers down, the number of deaths are coming down, the number of hospital admissions is down.”
Mr Johnson also announced a £600 million package for coronavirus infection control in English care homes.
The Commons clash came as ministers defended the easing of lockdown restrictions in England amid signs of confusion and anger over the new rules.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted the Government is taking a “common sense” approach, gradually easing the restrictions as the outbreak is brought under control.
But with ministers encouraging employees to return to work where possible, he urged people not to “flood back” on to public transport, warning that the system will not be able to cope.
The changes to the guidelines in England mean home-buyers and renters will be able to complete purchases and view properties in person, while visiting estate agents, developer sales offices or show homes will also be allowed.
In other developments:
– The UK economy contracted at the fastest pace on record in March as the coronavirus crisis puts Britain on the brink of the worst recession in 300 years.
– Police have been told they have no powers to enforce two-metre social distancing in England in fresh guidelines issued by the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
– Holiday giant Tui is looking to cut up to 8,000 roles worldwide with the firm calling Covid-19 the “greatest crisis” the industry has faced.
– A 14-year-old boy with no underlying health conditions has died from a Kawasaki-like disease linked to coronavirus.
– Mr Johnson paid tribute to Belly Mujinga, a railway ticket office worker who died with coronavirus after being spat at while on duty, saying: “The fact that she was abused for doing her job is utterly appalling.”
In other changes – which have not been adopted by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – people will be allowed to take unlimited outdoor exercise and to sunbathe in parks and public places.
They will also be able to meet one other person from another household in a public space, as long as the two-metre rule is respected, while golf clubs, tennis courts and angling have also been given the green light to open.
Restrictions on how far people can travel to get to the countryside, national parks and beaches in England have also been lifted – but people have been warned to respect local communities, keep their distance from others and avoid hot spots or busy areas.