Boris Johnson blames NHS ‘bed blocking’ on need for first COVID lockdown

Boris Johnson has claimed he was forced to plunge the UK into lockdown because of NHS “bed blocking”.

In a section of his witness statement shared with the official COVID inquiry, the former prime minister said the “extreme measures” announced on 23 March 2020 were introduced because the health service had “failed to grip” the problem of delayed discharges.

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The term, also known as bed blocking, is used to describe patients – mostly elderly – who are occupying a hospital bed they do not strictly need, often because the next stage of their care has not been organised.

Mr Johnson said: “It was very frustrating to think that we were being forced to extreme measures to lock down the country and protect the NHS – because the NHS and social services had failed to grip the decades-old problem of delayed discharges, commonly known as bed blocking.

“Before the pandemic began I was doing regular tours of hospitals and finding that about 30% of patients did not strictly need to be in acute sector beds.”

A paramedic walks past a line of ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital, in London, during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. Picture date: Wednesday January 20, 2021.
A line of ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital during England’s third national lockdown

The claim was rejected by former NHS chief executive Lord Stevens, who gave evidence to the inquiry on Thursday morning.

He said: “We, and indeed he, were being told that if action was not taken on reducing the spread of coronavirus, there wouldn’t be 30,000 hospital inpatients, there would be maybe 200,000 or 800,000 hospital inpatients.

“So you can’t say that you would be able to deal with 200,000 or 800,000 inpatients by reference to 30,000 blocked beds.

“Even if all of those 30,000 beds were freed up – for every one coronavirus patient who was then admitted to that bed, there would be another five patients who needed that care but weren’t able to get it.

“So no, I don’t think that is a fair statement in describing the decision calculus for the first wave.”

Hancock ‘wanted to decide who should live’

The inquiry also head on Thursday that former health secretary Matt Hancock wanted to decide who should live or die if hospitals became overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

Lord Stevens said: “[Mr Hancock] took the position that in this situation he – rather than, say, the medical profession or the public – should ultimately decide who should live and who should die.

“Fortunately this horrible dilemma never crystallised.”

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Health secretary ‘wanted to decide who should live’

He added: “I certainly wanted to discourage the idea that an individual secretary of state, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, should be deciding how care would be provided.”

Lord Stevens further told the hearing that senior ministers “sometimes avoided” Cobra meetings in the early days of the pandemic chaired by Mr Hancock.

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In his witness statement, he said the emergency meetings “usefully brought together a cross-section of departments, agencies and the devolved administrations.

“However, these meetings were arguably not optimally effective. They were very large, and when Cobra meetings were chaired by the health and social care secretary, other secretaries of state sometimes avoided attending and delegated to their junior ministers instead.”

Asked by Andrew O’Connor KC if that was a reflection on Mr Hancock, Lord Stevens said: “I am not saying that was cause and effect, but that was the fact of the matter. I just observed that those two coincided.”

Mr Hancock has previously come under criticism during the inquiry, with witnesses accusing him of telling untruths and displaying “nuclear levels” of overconfidence.

The inquiry is examining political and administrative decision-making during the pandemic, with a picture emerging of chaos, dysfunctionality, incompetence and backstabbing at the heart of government during the crisis.

This week has heard how Number 10 was “unbelievably bullish” in 2020 before the full effects of the pandemic were felt in Britain – with some senior figures allegedly “laughing” at the severity of the situation in Italy – one of the first European countries to be hit by the virus.

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Witnesses, including Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings and ex communications chief Lee Cain, have described the government as being in “complete chaos” by early March, with Mr Johnson dithering over whether to announce a lockdown because he wanted to be like the mayor in the film Jaws, who kept the beaches open.

On Wednesday, former civil servant Helen McNamara described how on 13 March, 10 days before lockdown, she had learned there was “no plan” for the NHS to deal with a pandemic.

Ms NcNamara said she warned Mr Johnson’s top officials: “I think we’re absolutely f****d, I think this country is heading for a disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.”

Witnesses scheduled to appear at the inquiry next week include former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Lord Sedwill, former Number 10 special adviser Dr Ben Warner and former home secretary Dame Priti Patel.