LONDON — A British court ruled on Wednesday that the government’s decision to send hospital patients back to nursing homes without testing them for COVID-19, which led to thousands of deaths early in the pandemic, was illegal.
Two High Court judges said the March and April 2020 policy was unlawful because it failed to take into account the risk of infection that non-symptomatic carriers of the virus posed to the elderly or vulnerable.
The judges said officials had not considered other options, including separating these patients from other nursing home residents for as long as possible.
“It was not a binary issue – a choice between on the one hand doing nothing at all, and on the other hand requiring all newly admitted residents to be quarantined,” the judges said.
The decision came in response to a lawsuit brought by two women whose fathers died when the virus swept through the homes where they lived. Their lawyers said the decisions that allowed COVID-19 to spread among the elderly and vulnerable were “one of the most flagrant and devastating policy failures of the modern age”.
The judges upheld parts of the trial arguments, but rejected claims made under human rights law and against the National Health Service.
Like many countries, the UK had little capacity to test for coronavirus when the pandemic started, and many asymptomatic patients were discharged from hospitals to care homes, where COVID-19 quickly unleashed.
Around 20,000 people died from the virus in UK care homes in the first months of the country’s first outbreak of 2020.
Hancock’s office said in a statement that the court ruling cleared him of wrongdoing and found he “acted reasonably in all respects.” He said Hancock wished health officials had told him everything they knew about asymptomatic transmission of the virus sooner.
Provider Cathy Gardner, whose father died in April 2020, said “my father and other care home residents have been neglected and abandoned by the government”.
“Matt Hancock’s claim that the government threw a ring of protection around care homes during the first wave of the pandemic was nothing more than a despicable lie of which he should be ashamed and for which he should apologize,” Gardner said.
There was no immediate response from the government.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set up an independent public inquiry into Britain’s handling of the pandemic, although it has yet to start. More than 174,000 people have died in Britain after testing positive for the virus, the highest toll in Europe after Russia.