Sir Keir Starmer has said government failings were directly to blame for the “chilling” death toll in care homes in clashes at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Labour leader criticised Boris Johnson’s refusal to apologise for recent comments in which he said some care homes did not follow procedures.
He said it “rubbed salt in the wounds” of staff let down during the crisis.
The PM said he “took responsibility” and insisted procedures changed as understanding of the virus deepened.
“The one thing that nobody knew early on this pandemic was that the virus was being pass asymptomatically from person to person in the way that it is, and that is why the guidance and procedures changed,” he told MPs.
During the leaders’ exchanges, the PM refused to guarantee that NHS staff in England would not be asked to pay for hospital parking charges in the future, saying the current free arrangements remained in place “now”.
Mr Johnson has been widely criticised by the care sector for comments he made on Monday suggesting some homes did not follow procedures put in place in March and April to protect residents and limit the virus’ spread.
Almost 30,000 more care home residents in England and Wales died during the outbreak than during the same period in 2019, official figures show. Two thirds of these were attributable to coronavirus.
The Labour leader said the PM’s comments had left care workers “raw” with anger and it was the government which had made “huge mistakes” by failing to provide PPE and testing quickly enough and allowing hospitals to discharge patients back into care homes without being tested.
“By refusing to apologise the prime minister rubs salt into the wounds of the very people that he stood at his front door and clapped,” he said.
“Overall around one in 20 care home residents are estimated to have died from the virus. It’s chilling.
“These are extraordinary numbers but the prime minister has consistently ducked responsibility for this. Will he accept it isn’t care workers who are to blame, it’s his government?”
In response, Mr Johnson thanked care workers for their dedication and self-sacrifice and said he took “full responsibility” for all the decisions taken during the crisis.
“The last thing I wanted to do is to blame care workers for what has happened or for any of them to think that I was blaming them,” he said.
The government had been right to adapt its measures as understanding of the disease “changed dramatically”, he insisted.
“He keeps saying that I blamed or try to blame care workers and that is simply not the case.
“The reality is that we now know things about the way coronavirus is passed from person to person without symptoms that we just didn’t know.”
Addressing the Labour leader directly, he added: “Perhaps captain hindsight would like to tell us whether he knew that it was being transmitted asymptomatically.”
In February, the government’s main scientific advisory committee, Sage, said that asymptomatic transmission could not be ruled out and transmission from mildly symptomatic individuals was likely.
On 22 April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock conceded that asymptomatic transmission posed a “significant challenge” although the extent of it was not clear.
The Lib Dems said the PM’s comments were incorrect and despite ministers being aware of the risk of people without symptoms spreading the virus the social care system had been left “tragically exposed”.
Car parking charges
At PMQs, the Labour leader also pressed the PM to rule out any return to car parking charges in English hospitals amid reports that the current exemptions for NHS staff in place since the end of March could soon be ended.
He said the PM should be “rewarding NHS staff not making it more expensive for them to go to work”.
In response, the PM said: “The hospital car parks are free for NHS staff for this pandemic, they’re free now, and we’re going to get on with our manifesto commitment to make them free for patients who need them as well.
“May I suggest he takes his latest bandwagon and parks it free somewhere else.”
The Conservative government’s 2019 manifesto promised to make parking free for those in greatest need including “disabled people, frequent outpatient attenders and staff working night shifts”.
In Scotland, parking charges at three Scottish hospitals have been scrapped. Charging for parking at other NHS car parks in Scotland was scrapped in 2008. Parking at all NHS hospitals in Wales has been free since 2018.