“People will draw their own conclusions” over the Labour Welsh Government’s “lack of transparency” on care home Covid testing policies. Mabon ap Gwynfor MS, Plaid Cymru, has called the decision to withhold information that would allow scrutiny of government actions during the pandemic “appalling”.
Plaid Cymru calls for all advice that informed Welsh Government policies on Covid testing for care home staff and residents in Wales to be published. This includes information regarding patients discharged from hospitals into care home settings.
Care homes and Covid testing
A total of 1,097 patients in Wales were discharged to care homes between the issuing of SAGE advice on the need for routine Covid testing on 31 March 2020 and the eventual introduction of such testing by the Welsh Government. A BBC Wales investigation in the summer of 2020 found that residents entered care homes from risky settings untested, and care homes were put under pressure to take in infected patients.
The resulting care home deaths led to the Older People’s Commissioner reporting the Welsh Government to the EHRC over a suspected breach of older people’s rights to life. Last year, the High Court ruled that the UK government acted unlawfully by discharging untested hospital patients into care homes during the early stages of the pandemic in England.
This is significant because, during those early stages, it was Welsh Government policy to refuse tests to care homes where residents were not displaying coronavirus symptoms. WhatsApp messages leaked this year suggest that then-UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was told in April 2020 there should be “testing of all going into care homes”.
While the Welsh Government introduced routine Covid testing for people being discharged into care homes by the end of April 2020, this was two weeks later than England. Plaid Cymru has asked for the evidence that informed Welsh Government decisions around testing for such patients, but this information is being withheld by the Welsh Government.
The Welsh Government states this is on the basis that it forms part of a package of information being sent to the UK Covid Inquiry. But Mr ap Gwynfor, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for health and care, has pointed out that it may be “years” until this evidence is scrutinised via that Inquiry.
Hiding vital information
Mr ap Gwynfor says the Welsh Government is “hiding vital information which should be made public”. In the event that another pandemic happens before the work of the UK Inquiry is concluded, the public needs to know that “Welsh Government won’t be doomed to repeat the same mistakes again”.
He adds: “The consequences of not implementing universal testing in care homes sooner has already been laid bare in the testimonies of too many heartbroken families. I am appalled that the Welsh Government is refusing to release the information that would allow us to properly scrutinise their decisions. It is not good enough to claim that this is hindsight. We know the authorities were told that all patients should be tested back in April 2020.”
“The Labour Welsh Government’s failure to be open about this shows their complete contempt for the people of Wales, and especially the bereaved families of loved ones who lost their lives due to the Government’s failure. Yes, there is a UK Covid Inquiry, and yes, there is a Special Purpose Committee whose remit is to look at any gaps identified in the UK Covid Inquiry. But by definition, the Committee can never complete its work until after the Inquiry has concluded. This could be years away!”
“Care home deaths were nothing short of a national scandal. The … Welsh Government is withholding the evidence they say they have for acting in the way they did. They are hiding vital information which should be made public. People will draw their own conclusions as to why this Labour government has decided not to be completely transparent.”
Plaid Cymru sent a Freedom of Information request to the Welsh Government to ask for all ministerial and scientific advice (and any other supporting documents) that informed its policies on Covid testing for care home staff and residents in Wales from 30 January to 16 May 2020. Its full response can be found here.
Freedom of information
On 29 April 2020, Plaid Cymru’s Delyth Jewell MS raised concerns about Covid testing policy for care homes. She noted that, until 23 April 2020, residents routinely returned from hospitals untested, unless symptomatic. In his response the First Minister maintained: “medical and clinical advice remain all the same all the way through: that a test of somebody who has no symptoms doesn’t offer you anything useful in making the right decisions for that person.”
Plaid Cymru has been consistent in calls for universal Covid testing in care homes. On 12 May 2020 we called for routine testing for all residents and staff. On 22 May 2020 we called for then-Health Minister Vaughan Gething to apologise for failing to test in care homes. On 24 June 2020 we called for the Welsh Government to publish the advice supporting its decision to send untested patients back. The Health Minister claimed no deaths resulted from this, which defied logic.
The High Court ruling and Hancock’s WhatsApps call into question exactly what “evidence” the Welsh Government acted on, and are a reminder of the importance of a Wales-specific inquiry. It’s the only way to ensure we fully understand the impact of decisions made in Wales, and certainly will be quicker than the UK Inquiry followed by a Special Purpose Committee.
“It’s not too late for the Welsh Government to … open themselves up to full scrutiny by holding a Welsh-specific Covid inquiry,” says ap Gwynfor. “After all, health is a devolved matter, and decisions taken in Wales should be scrutinised in Wales. But at the very least, they must disclose evidence relating to care home Covid testing now. It’s not good enough to wait for a UK inquiry which may or may not raise these questions. We have gravely serious concerns now, and demand answers.”