The Health Secretary made the revelation when he was quizzed by MPs, from the Science and Technology and Health and Social Care committees, over the most controversial aspect of the pandemic – when thousands of hospital patients were discharged into care homes.
However, Mr Hancock said the powers he had over social care were “extremely limited” at start of pandemic and they “simply didn’t have the levers”.
Mr Hancock was asked about the words he said early in the pandemic that the Government had tried to throw a “protective ring” around care homes and replied: “I think the most important words in that sentence are that we ‘tried to’, it was very hard.
“All of these deaths in care homes, each and every death in a care home, weighs heavily on me and always will.
“We knew from the start, from very early in January that the impact of this disease was most significant on the oldest and therefore care homes were going to be a particular risk.”
He said they put in funding and made sure PPE was as available “as possible” by building a distribution system. He said they set out their first guidance for care homes on February 25, weekly staff testing in July and most recently made care homes a “top priority” for vaccinations.
But he added: “It was very hard for a number of reasons, some of which are fixed and some aren’t.
“I am Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Yet at the start of this pandemic, the powers I had over social care were extremely limited.
“The formal powers rest with local government and formally social care is the responsibility of local government, but I feel it keenly.
“We didn’t have the data. When I first asked for a list of all of the elderly care homes – we didn’t have one. Which I find totally extraordinary saying – but it’s true.
“We simply didn’t have the levers and we had to invent a whole series of them. We now have far better data.
“Some of these problems still need to be fixed. We need to reform social care and we need to make sure that we put into law the ability of the national government – where necessary – to come in firmly whether it’s to issue guidance that’s binding or put in place funding because we had to funnel funding indirectly through local authorities as well…so there’s a whole series of things that have been improved. And then there’s a whole series of things that we still need to do.”
It comes after the Prime Minister’s former senior aide Dominic Cummings said claims they put a protective shield around care homes at the start of the pandemic were “complete nonsense”.
The huge death toll in care homes during the first wave has emerged as one of the key mistakes the public inquiry will look at.