The Health Secretary has pledged to investigate cases where “do not resuscitate” decisions were inappropriately given to people with learning disabilities, following a Telegraph investigation into the issue.
Matt Hancock told a Parliamentary inquiry into the pandemic he would “absolutely” probe a case where a patient with learning disabilities died after being given a do not resuscitate order (DNR) and wanted to “know” about “cases of people disobeying the guidance”.
Describing the cases as “totally inappropriate”, he said the health regulator – the Care Quality Commission (CQC) – “is here to investigate formally as the health regulator, to make sure that this sort of guidance is followed.”
Sally-Rose Cyrille, whose sister Sonia Deleon, 58, died of a heart attack in hospital after she was given several DNRs, said: “My family won’t give up on Sonia’s case and we are very pleased Matt Hancock has said he will investigate it further because despite our efforts so far, we feel no one is taking action about what happened”.
Dulceta and Sally-Rose Cyrille, holding a picture of daughter and sister Sonia Deleon, who had a DNR order placed on her during the pandemic and who subsequently died of a heart attack in Southend hospital
Credit: Paul Grover
Appearing before the committee two weeks after Dominic Cummings levelled a series of explosive allegations against him, Mr Hancock also emphatically denied claims he had lied to the Prime Minister.
However, he acknowledged that Britain was ill-prepared for the pandemic, lacked the testing capacity of countries such as South Korea, and expressed regret that he had not challenged the advice of scientists which was later proven to be wrong.
In future, he suggested that countries needed to establish greater global cooperation on border restrictions to prevent another pandemic, while also failing to rule out the use of lockdowns again should a vaccine-resistant variant emerge.
Fightback against Cummings
During the four-and-half-hour hearing, Mr Hancock repeatedly dismissed claims levelled against him by Mr Cummings, insisting that he had acted with “honesty and integrity” and welcomed the opportunity to tell the “truth”.
On claims that he had misleadingly told Boris Johnson that people were being tested for Covid-19 before being discharged from hospital into care homes, Mr Hancock said that he had only committed to doing so once the capacity was available.
Contrary to suggestions he blamed Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, and Rishi Sunak for PPE shortages, Mr Hancock countered that they had both played a vital role and that the Chancellor had been “incredibly helpful” in helping remove Whitehall barriers to securing supplies.
He also rejected claims that his “stupid” testing target of 100,000 tests by the end of April 2021 had undermined efforts to scale up, arguing it had instead “galvanised” the system and that he had secure the prime minister’s full support.
Pressed on why he believed Mr Cummings had been so withering in his criticism, Mr Hancock said he had “no idea” but that he was aware he wanted him to be fired as Health Secretary last year.
In a stinging rebuke of the former Number 10 aide, who departed Government in October last year, he added: “The operation of Government has improved very significantly since November. And the public have definitely noticed that. The public trust across the UK in the measures the Government has taken has increased significantly.”
While denying claims that he had misled Mr Johnson over the discharging of patients into care homes without a negative test, Mr Hancock admitted that the initial clinical advice permitting this had been partly down to advice that asymptomatic testing risked producing “false assurance” for people.
He added that keeping patients in hospital for four days while awaiting results could increase the likelihood of them catching the disease in the meantime, meaning they could then be discharged into a care home while infected, despite having a negative test.
He also confirmed that the decision to write to NHS trusts on March 17 instructing them to free up beds had been discussed with him and Mr Johnson.
Mr Hancock told MPs the greatest risk of seeding infections in care homes had come from community transmission, with PHE data showing that just 1.6 per cent of care home cases were linked to hospitals. He said that staff and community transmission played a more significant role.
The second reason for the advice, which was later changed, was down to a lack of tests, meaning that this available capacity needed to be targeted “where it’s most clinically needed.”
He committed to publishing the clinical advice he had received.
Science should have been challenged more
While insisting that the Government had been dealing with an “unprecedented” crisis, Mr Hancock cited areas where in hindsight he believed ministers should have challenged the advice they were given.
He said he “bitterly” regretted not overruling scientific advice that people did not spread the disease without symptoms, and said repeatedly that errors had been the result of advice that turned out to be wrong.
Asked if ministers had been given the option to follow East Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, which used mass testing to help suppress the virus, Mr Hancock said they had not.
On China, he also called for a full and independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, adding that Beijing’s lack of transparency had hampered efforts to prepare for the pandemic that would follow.
He said that a key lesson for the future was that Britain needed a “standing testing capacity” and ready to deploy test and trace system to “pounce” on any emerging pathogen with pandemic potential.
Another was that countries needed to work together to close borders faster, while maintaining that even if the UK had taken far tougher action “unilaterally” from the outset, it would have only delayed Covid-19’s arrival in the UK by weeks.
Mr Hancock acknowledged that the assumption that people would be unwilling to put up with draconian restrictions for prolonged periods was wrong and contributed to delaying the first lockdown, but said he felt unable to challenge the consensus on a "decision of such enormity".
He said he personally believed that Britons would have accepted an East Asian-style test and trace programme, despite the potential invasion of data privacy, because the "justification was so clear".
He also acknowledged that they were better prepared due to their experience of Sars and Mers, and that the West had not learnt the same lessons as those impacted by those earlier outbreaks.
By Jan 27 last year, he said that the worst reasonable case scenario was that up to 826,000 people could die from Covid-19, but argued that ministers needed time to set up shielding, furlough and other measures to enable lockdown to go ahead.
Asked about the Government’s decision to reject a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown in September, he said in order for it to work it would have required that “everybody on the planet didn’t see a single other person on the planet for two weeks”, which "obviously can’t happen".
He also defended the delay in implementing the second lockdown, arguing that ministers were trying to balance competing factors, while the third in January had been hard to predict due to emergence of the Kent variant, which was far more transmissible.
June 21 and future threats
Refusing to provide any detail on whether Mr Johnson would give the go ahead to the lifting of all restrictions next Monday, Mr Hancock said only that it depended on whether data showed that the link between rising infections and hospitalisation and death had been severed.
While he said the evidence so far was that vaccines were helping to ensure this was “falling” the question that remained unanswered was “how far it’s falling and how fast.”
He added that ministers were now watching the data “like a hawk”.
Asked what the plan was to deal with potentially vaccine-resistant variants in future, Mr Hancock said this was “predicated” on new vaccines, although he signalled that Mr Johnson’s 100-day target for delivering this was not yet on track.
In the meantime, he said the UK would have to use the “tools we have available” and did not rule out these being further lockdowns and social distancing if required.