Saving the NHS or sacrificing lives? Clash over hospital discharges to clear space for Covid patients

A furious row has broken out between senior Lancashire politicians over the policy of discharging elderly people from hospital and into care homes at the start of the coronavirus pandemic - without knowing if they had the disease.
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In mid-March, hospitals across the country were ordered by NHS England to free-up space in order to maximise critical care capacity for the wave of Covid-19 patients that were expected to hit the NHS.

However, it was not until 15th April that the government required all patients being sent to care homes to be tested - and in the intervening month around 25,000 patients in England made the move from the wards into the care sector. It was reported earlier this that around 16,000 of the total had not been given a test.

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Lancashire County Council's Conservative cabinet member for adult services, Graham Gooch, defended what he described as a "big decision" by the government to protect the NHS as he appeared before a meeting of the authority's internal scrutiny committee.

Deputy Labour group leader and nurse, John Fillis, and cabinet member for adult services, Graham GoochDeputy Labour group leader and nurse, John Fillis, and cabinet member for adult services, Graham Gooch
Deputy Labour group leader and nurse, John Fillis, and cabinet member for adult services, Graham Gooch

"It was quite clear that if the strain was to be removed from hospitals, it had to go somewhere - it would not simply disappear. So people were discharged from hospital, including those who had Covid, but did not need or would not benefit from acute hospital care," County Cllr Gooch said.

However, Labour's deputy opposition group leader, John Fillis, demanded to know how many Lancashire residents had "died prematurely" as a result of the practice.

"The Conservatives knowingly chose to transfer vulnerable elderly people out of hospital into care homes without testing - who may have been Covid positive. These vulnerable people subsequently died and may have caused cross-infection in the homes," County Cllr Fillis said.

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County Cllr Gooch said it was difficult to quantify exactly how many succumbed as a direct result of Covid - and accused his questioner of making a "political point".

"This was a very important, big decision by government to save the NHS - and that had to be done somehow. At the time, nobody from Labour criticised what was going on [and] demanded that this policy be stopped - until a seeming epidemic of hindsight spread through their ranks.

"[Saving the NHS] was absolutely vital, so risks had to be taken. The NHS had to be saved - and you all agreed with that.

"Care homes were willing to take people who had the illness confirmed - some were nursing homes. We could have done with step-down, community hospitals - convalescence - but we didn't have that, so care homes were the only place they were going to go.

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"And if you think that we shouldn't have saved the NHS, that's a matter for you," County Cllr Gooch added.

But County Cllr Fillis - who came out of retirement as a nurse to assist in the NHS's response to coronavirus - decried the lack of an answer to a "straightforward question" about how many Lancashire lives had been lost. He also said that there had been a cover-up of the policy.

"You say we didn't challenge [it], but nobody knew that people were going into these homes without being tested - that only came out subsequently. You kept it all quiet - you hid it from the public.

"You have cut the NHS down to the bone, that's why were are in a serious problem now - that is why they phoned me and many others to go back to to work, because they didn't have enough staff," County Cllr Fillis said.

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As Conservative committee chair David O'Toole told him that it was "not an appropriate forum" for political debate, the Labour politician thundered: "Asking questions about what happened is scrutiny."

Forty-five percent of the 425 care homes in the county council area saw at least one Covid-19 outbreak between March and July.

The government has previously said that the number of people being discharged into care from hospitals nationwide declined between January and March this year. Howeber, the figures for the first half of March 2020 were higher than the correspondijgn period in 2019.