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Health Department Whistleblower: Political Pressure ‘Watered-Down’ Public Health England Care Home Guidance Over COVID Testing

Nafeez Ahmed reports on an insider’s account of how the Department of Health and Social Care leaned on Public Health officials to drop Coronavirus testing of people transferred from hospitals into care homes

Photo: Maggie Sully/Alamy

Health Department Whistleblower:Political Pressure ‘Watered Down’ Public Health England Care Home Guidance Over COVID Testing

Nafeez Ahmed reports on an insider’s account of how the Department of Health and Social Care leaned on Public Health officials to drop Coronavirus testing of people transferred from hospitals into care homes

Public Health England was forced to alter its original scientific advice demanding elderly patients only be released into care homes after testing negative for the Coronavirus under political pressure from senior Government officials and the NHS, an official at the Department of Health and Social Care has claimed.

Speaking exclusively to Byline Times, under a condition of anonymity, the whistle-blower confirmed that, in March 2020, PHE’s internal advice from clinical staff was to ensure that any patients newly discharged into care homes had to be tested for COVID-19.

“Public Health England’s original advice was that people shouldn’t be released from homes and hospitals without being tested to ensure they are not carrying the disease,” they said.

That initial advice was signed-off by two senior PHE officials and was the case up to the period “just before the lockdown”, the source revealed.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) rejected these claims as “unsubstantiated”.

Even though officials were fully aware of COVID-19 outbreaks in care homes at this time, the source said, Health Minister Helen Whately – who was appointed to the post in February 2020 – “leaned on PHE” to alter the advice being published because the DHSC officials believed that “we need to empty space and get people out” of hospitals. As a result, PHE officials were pressured to sign-off on published guidance that “was softened to allow care homes more freedom to take residents in”. 

At the time, public Department of Health and Social Care guidance stated that “negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home” and detailed discharge guidance published by the DHSC and NHS England and NHS Improvement made no mention of any requirement to test everyone who was discharged.

But this guidance contradicted the PHE advice circulating internally in March. The source told Byline Times: “In March, the internal language at PHE was advising that anyone with a symptom gets a test – especially in a care home. But they didn’t follow through with this policy at DHSC. The advice was watered-down. DHSC wanted to only allow a certain amount of tests, targeted at people showing specific symptoms.”

According to the source, Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE director of health protection; and Professor John Newton, director of health improvement were among a cohort of PHE officials who were “pushing back against this pressure, struggling with what was going on, and arguing for more stringent measures”. But they had been told by a top PHE executive under pressure from Whately to “not say any of this in public”. 

“I don’t know why this happened, but I would assume this was about capacity concerns at the time,” said the source. Many of the conversations around these issues occurred between top PHE and DHSC officials over WhatsApp, they said. “The entire COVID-19 response was being conducted over WhatsApp messages.” 

Even when guidance published a month later, on 16 April, finally stipulated the need for COVID-19 testing for NHS patients being discharged into care homes, this “didn’t include the initial warnings from clinical staff in PHE”.

The Myth of the Protective Ring

These new revelations contradict Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock’s claim that he had “thrown a protective ring” around care homes at the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic last year, and raise questions about how the Government’s reluctance to follow the initial scientific advice on care homes from PHE contributed to unnecessary deaths in care homes and the wider community.

The Government has failed to disclose any documents, emails or conversations relating to this initial PHE advice to judicial review proceedings brought against the Government by Dr Cathy Gardner, a virologist whose father Michael Gibson died in an Oxfordshire care home in early April after a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 was discharged into the home from hospital.

The DHSC will not comment on leaks or ongoing legal proceedings, but Dr Gardner argues that the Government’s failures allowed 25,000 NHS patients to be discharged directly into care homes without being tested for COVID-19 or instructed to isolate.

The source described a fundamental conflict of interest relating to the Government’s legal defence team in this case, which is being led by the Government Legal Department.

“The same legal counsel representing DHSC is also representing PHE,” they said. “Senior PHE officials believe this is a conflict of interest because this is being done to protect the Department of Health while allowing the blame to be shouldered by PHE.”

According to the source, the Government Legal Department has justified the failure to disclose documents relating to initial PHE advice on care homes on the grounds that this early “advice was given effectively retrospectively so does not need to be released”.

The Government’s refusal to disclose these documents could amount to an obstruction of justice.

“If such a document or documents exist, it is a matter of considerable concern that they have not been disclosed by the Government to Dr Cathy Gardner’s legal team,” said Paul Conrathe, a senior consultant solicitor at Sinclairs Law, the firm representing Dr Gardner. “Failure to disclose relevant information would be a breach of the Government’s duty of candour to the court. We will be following up with the Government specifically to seek disclosure of this and other relevant documents.”

A spokesperson for the DHSC told Byline Times that, apart from rejecting these claims as “unsubstantiated” their “primary duty has been to protect the NHS and save lives.”

“We have been committed to transparency throughout this pandemic, including working closely with Public Health England to ensure scientific advice and data is published honestly, openly, safely and in a timely manner,” the spokesperson added.

This article was amended on 16/06/21 to remove the name of two PHE officials after further information from Public Health England

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