Labour leader Keir Starmer pointed out to Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) that the government once said care home residents were not expected to contract the virus.
But the prime minister’s official spokesperson has accused Starmer of selective quoting.
Figures are increasingly making clear the scale of care home deaths from the coronavirus – known to affect older people worse than others – with the Office for National Statistics showing 40% (2,423) of COVID-19-related deaths in the week up to 1 May were in care homes.
Asking if Johnson had moved too slowly to protect people in care homes, Starmer said: “In his speech on Sunday the prime minister said we need to rapidly reverse the awful epidemic in our care homes, but earlier this year, and until 12 March, the government’s own official advice was, and I’m quoting from it, ‘it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected’.”
Johnson replied: “No, Mr Speaker, it wasn’t true that the advice said that, and actually we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown.”
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However, the advice appears online in a document published by the government called “guidance for social or community care and residential settings on COVID-19” – now highlighted as “withdrawn”.
Under a heading about face masks, it stated: “Face masks are only recommended to be worn by infected individuals when advised by a healthcare worker, to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people.
“It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”
However, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “I think what’s actually happened is that the leader of the opposition has inaccurately and selectively quoted from the Public Health England guidance and that is what the PM was referring to.”
Another section of the advice also says the risk of infection is unlikely in care homes, but follows the sentence: “This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of COVID-19 in the community.”
However, a paper dated to February 10 from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, which advises the Department of Health, said there was a “realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will be become established in the coming weeks”.
Starmer called on Johnson to correct his statement in parliament on Wednesday afternoon.
“At this time of national crisis, it is more important than ever that government ministers are accurate in the information they give,” he wrote in a letter to the prime minister.
“Given this, I expect you to come to the House of Commons at the earliest opportunity to correct the record and to recognise that this was official government guidance regarding care homes.”
During PMQs, Johnson also pledged £600m for controlling the infection in care homes, saying a “huge exercise in testing is going on”.
“And, yes, it is absolutely true that the number of casualties has been too high, but I can tell the House, as I told (Starmer) last week and indeed this week, the number of outbreaks is down and the number of fatalities in care homes is now well down.”