Boris Johnson’s claim that a lack of knowledge about asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 put care homes at risk has been further undermined after it emerged he had openly discussed the potential scale of the outbreak. transmission without symptoms.
The Prime Minister has previously been accused of misleading Parliament over this claim. He did so last week after the High Court ruled the government had acted unlawfully in ordering the discharge of patients to care homes without testing in the spring of 2020. Johnson told the House of Commons: ‘What we didn’t know in particular was that Covid could be transmitted asymptomatically.
However, the Prime Minister commented on articles examining the issue at a Covid press conference on March 25 – several weeks before rules were changed to ensure all patients are tested before being admitted to a home. of care.
At the press conference, he asked chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance about reports that many people may have the disease without symptoms. “Patrick, on the number of people with the disease asymptomatically, I saw a study quoted by some Oxford academics saying that up to 50% may have had it asymptomatically,” he said. he declares. “How do you rate that at this point?”
Vallance said studies in China and Italy have found asymptomatic cases, but the role of those cases at the population level is unknown. He also said new antibody tests “could determine how many people have had the disease asymptomatically, and that’s going to be important in understanding what to do next.” He added: “These tests are critically important. We need more. »
Care homes emerged as a major casualty of the first wave of Covid. In mid-March 2020, NHS England told hospitals to “urge out” patients to help free up 15,000 beds. Compulsory testing was only introduced for discharged patients on April 15. Around 25,000 patients have been discharged to nursing homes in the meantime.
Last week’s High Court judgment listed several occasions in early 2020 where the risk of asymptomatic transmission was raised by scientists and ministers. A submission from the government’s own lawyers stated that “there is no doubt that [the government] understood that it was possible that asymptomatic people could introduce the virus into nursing homes”. A government spokesperson responded to the findings by saying the court “recognized that this was a very difficult decision at the start of the pandemic, the evidence on asymptomatic transmission was uncertain”.
Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said that while there was no evidence of asymptomatic transmission, ministers should have erred on the side of caution because the risks were known. “The Sage Government Advisory Committee had identified the problem of asymptomatic transmissions at the start of 2020, but if there was any doubt about the problems with the routes of transmission, it should have led to a clear directive that no one should be transferred between health and care facilities without a Covid test.
Johnson also acknowledged, at a press conference on March 18, the problems posed by the virus. “The problem with this disease is that it’s an invisible enemy and we don’t know who passes it on, but the nice thing about getting tested to see if you’ve had it or not is is that a green light suddenly lights up above your head.”
If he didn’t understand that meant people without obvious symptoms could be among those transmitting the virus, other people were on hand to report it. Lord Bethell, then a junior health minister, was explicit about this during a Lords debate on March 9, 2020 on the government’s first Covid regulations, which created the power to keep people in isolation if they presented a risk. He told members: ‘Lots of people are infected and contagious but completely asymptomatic and never come near a test kit.
At that time, the public was told that the incubation period for Covid could last up to 14 days, and most people didn’t develop symptoms until about three to five days later. There was no evidence at this stage of Covid transmission, – resulting in advice on hand-washing rather than mask-wearing – but the high level of infectivity and the possibility of asymptomatic transmission were actively discussed by scientists and commentators.
The Imperial College report that was so influential in the government’s initial response to the virus – and which led to widespread antipathy among lockdown skeptics towards its lead author Professor Neil Ferguson – said they assumed that “symptomatic individuals are 50% more infectious than asymptomatic individuals”.
A government spokesman said it was “clear on the understanding of the evolution of the virus over time and that it changed significantly from day to day, particularly at the start of the pandemic”. They said the “vast majority” of the court’s judgment last week ruled in favor of the government and that the evidence on asymptomatic transmission was “extremely uncertain”.
They added: “Our thoughts are with everyone who has lost loved ones during the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, our goal has been to protect the public from the threat to life and health posed by Covid-19 and we have specifically sought to protect care home residents based on the best information at the time. .