I wrote this column for next week’s Midweek Herald, just before the Neil Parish story broke
Not once, but three times, the government issued policy instructions in 2020 which broke the law because they knowingly exposed vulnerable care home residents to the risk of Covid – causing many avoidable deaths. This was the judgement handed down by the High Court last week in the landmark case brought by my formidable friend Dr Cathy Gardner, an East Devon Alliance councillor in Sidmouth and former EDDC Chair, whose own father was one of the victims.
Yet rather than apologise for their failings, the disgraced former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the serial-liar prime minister Boris Johnson doubled down on the very claim which the judges had definitively disproved in their judgement, that they ‘didn’t know’ that people without Covid symptoms could transmit the disease.
The judges pointed out that the government’s own Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, was one of many experts who had publicly highlighted the danger of asymptomatic transmission of Covid well before the government issued the first of its fatal policy instructions – which forced care homes to take hospital patients without their having been tested and without facilities to keep them separate from other vulnerable residents.
As Seaton’s county councillor at the time, I was kept informed about the devastating consequences in our area. One care home in the town saw eight residents die in a short period. A care home worker, who had come from the other side of the world to care for our elderly people, also died. There were fatal outbreaks in Axminster and Sidmouth, and across Devon and the entire country.
Not all of the deaths could have been stopped. But many were undoubtedly caused by the reckless, callous and – we now know – illegal policy which Hancock and Johnson pursued. It has taken two years of campaigning by Cathy and her co-applicant, who also lost her father, to achieve this measure of justice for the victims.
Unfortunately their case is not only of historic interest. The two Omicron waves of Covid, the first peaking in January and the second which has only just started to wane, have seen many new outbreaks in care homes in Devon and around the country. Unlike in 2020, most residents and staff are now triple-vaccinated and there are infection controls, but there have still been too many deaths.
The charge against the government now is not that it is directly introducing Covid into care homes, but that it is allowing the disease to circulate in society at a far higher level than is tolerable or necessary, and so still causing many avoidable deaths. Currently over 3,000 per week are dying from Covid – more than from flu in a whole year. Even if this figure declines, this year’s total will certainly exceed 50,000 and may be closer to 100,000, on top of the 200,000 who have already died.
The policy is supposed to be living with Covid, not dying with it. It should mean practical public health measures to restrict infection, like proper ventilation and mask-wearing in all indoor public spaces – including public transport – as was happening in Spain when I visited in March, as it still does in many countries.
As immunity from the first three vaccinations wanes, the second-booster programme becomes ever more important. I was at Seaton Hospital this week to get my new vaccination, having seen a friend struggle with two months of illness after getting infected – it was touch and go whether she would be hospitalised. But why has this booster been restricted to the over-75s, when doctors are concerned about the large numbers of 50-75 year olds who are ending up in hospital?
The government’s fatal neglect of care home residents in 2020 has become a general neglect of health needs in 2022. Johnson has tried to brush off Cathy’s vindication in the High Court: what will it take to really make him listen?