CONSERVATIVE MPs are calling for an urgent independent review after a BBC investigation claimed that County Durham had some of the highest coronavirus-related care home deaths in the UK.

Richard Holden, MP for North West Durham, has written to Durham County Council along with Dehenna Davison, MP for Bishop Auckland, and Paul Howell, MP for Sedgefield, about deaths in care homes in County Durham.

They claim it has been suggested the deaths may have been linked to Durham County Council’s locally determined policy to only pass on the finance provided by the Government to care homes on the condition they accepted untested patients from hospitals, a decision that was later reversed.

However, opponents say they are using the deaths to score party-political points.

North Durham Labour MP Kevan Jones said: “The decision to discharge patients from hospitals into care homes without being tested was a Government decision, not a decision taken by Durham County Council.

The Northern Echo:

“In the early stages of the pandemic, there was no Government guidance on how additional funding should be allocated so the county council followed guidance from the Conservative-led Local Government Association (LGA) and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) in order to ensure finances were allocated to care homes.

“It is distasteful that the three County Durham Tory MPs should seek to use the deaths of individuals’ loved ones from Covid-19 in County Durham Care Homes to score party-political points.

“The Public Accounts Committee, on which Richard Holden sits, which reported last week, said that the Government’s decision to discharge 25,000 patients to care homes without testing was an appalling error, describing it as a ‘reckless and negligent policy’, despite early warnings from Care England.

“Instead of trying to deflect blame on to the county council, the MPs should be questioning why their own Government took such a policy decision with such disastrous consequences in County Durham.”

The three Conservative MPs are asking that a short and independent investigation is carried out to look at the council’s decision.

Labour Durham city MP, Mary Foy also criticised the trio she said: ”It’s disappointing to see that blame is already being laid at the door of Durham County Council despite the fact that the Health Secretary’s alleged “protective ring” actually permitted infectious patients to enter care homes which at the time had no Covid-19 patients, and the Government’s guidance on this was confusing at best, and full of gaps and contradictions at worst. The number of deaths we saw in our care homes was a tragedy, but to see this being politicised in this way is deeply disappointing.

The Northern Echo:

“The support Durham County Council put in place reflected national guidance, and at no time was any financial support withheld from care providers. An independent review in to the council’s handling of the pandemic, especially at this moment in time, seems staggering. This request might be dressed up as not being partisan, but anyone can see past that facade.

“An inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus crisis is vital, but the people of our wonderful county, and indeed the whole country, would be better served by pressure being applied to the Prime Minister calling on him to commence the initial stages of an Independent Public Inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic at a national level; and the failures that have led to the UK having one of the worst coronavirus responses in the world.

“Rather than look to wrongly blame Durham County Council, perhaps it would be worth highlighting the praise which was bestowed upon the council by the Government’s own Communities Secretary, when it ranked second in the whole country for its speedy response in providing financial support to our local businesses.

“This request must be so disheartening for hard working local authority staff, following what has no doubt been one of the most challenging times in their careers. Perhaps MPs could look for ways to work positively with Durham County Council to ensure we are doing our best to ensure our constituents and businesses recover from the coronavirus pandemic and the challenging times that lie ahead.”

The Conservative MPs have urged that the investigation be carried out at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr Holden said: “We are glad to have worked closely with the council throughout this period and I know how hard so many of the staff there have worked to keep our communities safe. However, we have all been contacted by constituents about this issue and it is clear that an investigation is needed. That’s why we’ve written to (council leader) Councillor (Simon) Henig about this important matter.

“I’m glad that the council have now changed their policy because it was not right that local care homes were denied access to financial aid unless they abided by the conditions imposed upon them. This isn’t a perfect situation and governments and local authorities around the world and our council locally are learning from their mistakes as they battle the global coronavirus pandemic.

“What is important at this moment is not a partisan blame game but a quick independent review to make sure that if there are further spikes in coronvavirus locally that we ensure the right decisions in the future to prevent unnecessary suffering and loss of life wherever possible. We will continue to work with the council on this and, going forward, hope that they stick to national policy in order to protect those in County Durham.”

Jane Robinson, Durham County Council’s corporate director for adult and health services, said: “We are following national guidance and will continue to do so.

“The Government has already indicated there will be a full inquiry into how Covid-19 was handled at all levels, and we will fully support any such inquiry at that time.”