Words by Richard Fleury
On the day of her long-awaited appointment to health minister, Helen Whately was in high spirits.
After receiving her good news in Westminster, Faversham"s MP returned to attend a public meeting about the threatened Graveney solar power station.
We heard her before we saw her, laughing and talking excitedly as she clomped up the Guildhall stairs. Bursting in late and interrupting those speaking, she marched to the front and, beaming with visible pleasure, announced her promotion to a polite round of applause. Fifteen minutes later she left.
That was on 17 February, as official global coronavirus cases hit 71,000 and infection spread through Europe.
As Minister for Care, Whately was given responsibility for what"s left of Britain"s social care system following a decade of austerity and privatisation. With two care homes closing for every one that opens, a multi-billion pound funding shortfall and 122,000 carer vacancies unfilled, the sector was in no position to cope with the approaching onslaught.
In early March, Whately was warned the staffing crisis was about to get much worse, as her Government"s new points-based immigration system would prevent vital "low-skilled" care workers coming from overseas.
Her solution? Whately glibly told care homes to “redouble” their efforts to recruit UK workers. The National Care Association accused her of "lazy thinking" while Conservative colleague and North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale MP called her comments "facile".
With the NHS desperately short of nurses and nearly 44,000 full-time posts vacant in England, she refused to back the Royal College of Nurses" campaign for new safe staffing regulations. Instead she blamed the national staffing crisis on chronically underfunded local health trusts, saying: “NHS employers are day to day responsible for their workforce.”
In mid-March, after weeks of care homes and workers crying out for Government guidance, proper resources and more staff, she suggested they could keep running by “drawing on people who already have the skills but may at the moment be doing other jobs but may be able to volunteer to come back and help out”.
A week later, Whately was told the Government"s new emergency coronavirus bill threatened care for the country"s most vulnerable people by freeing councils of their duties under the Care Act 2014. Her response? She said they still be protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, despite charities warning that ECHR does little to guarantee care for those who depend on support to get out of bed, eat or even ask for help.
By late March care homes across the UK had each only received 300 inadequate masks to protect staff and residents. Residential homes, many needing hundreds of masks per day, had also expected aprons, gloves and visors. But Whately"s department told them not to expect anything else as PPE was now rationed. The World Health Organisation advises staff nursing suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients should wear respirator face masks, long sleeved disposable gowns, gloves and eye protection.
On 28 March, the Sunday Telegraph splashed on Exercise Cygnus, the 2016 drill to test if the NHS was ready to cope with a predicted pandemic. The three-day exercise was an unmitigated catastrophe. It revealed the NHS would be overwhelmed, with an acute shortage of critical beds, ventilators and PPE. Instead of publishing its shocking conclusions, the government suppressed them.
The next day, with the death toll of just such a pandemic already exceeding 1,000 – thanks to a lack of PPE and ventilators – Whately was interviewed on LBC by Nick Ferrari.
Ferrari began by asking: “The Conservatives knew this was coming and did nothing, did they?”
She responded, bizarrely, by asserting: “What you can see from that is that we are well prepared.”
When he pointed out Cygnus was a disaster, Whately bluffed: “You've made a statement which I haven"t heard anyone else say about that exercise.”
As a health minister and self-professed healthcare "expert" she should have known about Cygnus. It was an open secret in medical circles. Dame Sally Davies, the then Chief Medical Officer was emphatic at the time, warning the exercise "killed a lot of people", the NHS could not cope with the excess bodies and there was an acute lack of ventilators. Davies said a pandemic would be compounded by "the lack of vaccines and then the global traffic and lack of solidarity….a severe one will stretch everyone." As ministers ignored her, she despaired, “we are very good at saying something must be done, very bad at actually doing it”.
Pressed by Nick Ferrari, Whately doubled down on the lie, making the patently preposterous claims that these exercises show Britain is “in a good place” and “we are much better prepared than many other countries around the world”.
Ferrari challenged again, repeating that the Conservative government did nothing.
“I"m not clear where you are getting your information from,” Whately responded, to which a “staggered” Ferrari said the story was on the front page of the previous day"s Sunday Telegraph.
“How do you feel that journalists know about it and the Care Minister doesn't?” he asked. To which she says “You"re making statements about information from that is not in the public domain.” Incredulous, Ferrari replied: “What are you talking about? It was available yesterday!”
Her final, bonkers claim was that a huge stockpile of PPE equipment is available.
After this bewilderingly appalling performance, Whately quickly found herself trending on Twitter.
“Is there anything more useless than Helen Whately? A handbrake on a canoe?” asked one commenter, while another mused: “It amazes me she can find the way to her front gate.”
By early April, the lack of coronavirus testing in care homes had created a hidden epidemic. The Independent Care Group, representing care homes and providers, estimated the disease has already killed 4,000 residents. Meanwhile the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested the total could be as high as 12,000 with half of all deaths in several European countries happening in care homes. Care England said up to three quarters of care homes "had some element" of coronavirus.
The Government admittedonly 500 care home staff have been tested so far – with almost one and a half million still untested – and care workers" union Unison says: "The virus is sweeping through care homes at a terrifying rate. These testing levels are pitiful.”
Against the backdrop of rising public fear and anger at this unfolding horror, Care Minister Whately was interviewed on Good Morning Britain by Piers Morgan on 15 April.
What followed will haunt Helen Whately for the remainder of her political career. Confronted with a Daily Mail front page reporting 4000 elderly people may have died in care homes, she smirked. Then she laughed.
“Why are you laughing? What do you find funny about this?” questioned Morgan, open-mouthed.
“"I don"t think it"s funny in the slightest,” she replied.
To which he responded: “Well why do you keep laughing then?”
“I"m not laughing at all,” she said, after a million viewers had just watched her do precisely that.
“I literally just asked you is it true that 4,000 elderly people have died in hospital and all you can do is laugh,” retorted Morgan. “What"s the matter with you?”
Incredibly, Whately continued to deny laughing.
“"We literally just saw you!” said Morgan in near-disbelief.
Then just when it seemed Whately couldn"t dig a deeper hole for herself and her party, Morgan asked the Care Minister how many care workers had died from coronavirus. She didn"t know.
Once again Faversham"s MP became the focus of a Twitter storm. “Helen Whately MP is so brave that she literally laughs in the face of death. The deaths of 4,000 people in care homes, to be precise,” read one tweet.
Dismissing complaints that he was too hard on Whately, Morgan himself tweeted: "Where do I send my complaint about obfuscating, disingenuous, smirking, poorly-prepared ministers refusing to answer very important questions during a national crisis?"
No amount of soundbite salad spouting, gaslighting, sniggering, eye-rolling, diversion or evasion will protect our country from this virus.
The UK still has the lowest number of tests per million of any major Europan country. Once the numbers of deaths from care homes are added into the figures, the UK will have one of the highest number of deaths per million population of any country in the world.
Our Government"s callous, complacent and dishonest handling of this crisis is killing thousands every week. It is beginning to look like a state crime.
One day, if there is any justice at all, Whately must answer for her part in it.
EYE COMMENT: WHATELY MUST GO
Helen Whately must resign. She has repeatedly shown herself to be totally inept as a health minister and an embarrassment to the people of Faversham as our MP.
She never answers questions, instead endlessly repeating lies prepared by spin doctors.
Shamefully, she tried to deflect attention from her government’s disastrous mishandling of the coronavirus crisis by blaming the very NHS staff who risk their lives for us every day. They are professionals, who know what they are doing. Unlike her. There is still an acute shortage of PPE in hospitals. What little there is gets used time and time again, despite the risks. To suggest frontline health workers are misusing masks and other equipment is utterly beyond contempt. Attacking them at this time, when they are the thin line between all of us and the graveyard, was one of the most disgraceful slurs by any government minister in living memory.
Then, told that 4000 elderly people may have died in care homes, she laughed. Live, on national television.
As an MP, her entire voting record has been to punish the poor, the vulnerable and needy and reward the affluent, privileged and powerful.
She is the least appropriate person imaginable to be 'Care Minister' – at this time or any other. It's hard to conceive of someone more morally, intellectually and emotionally ill-equipped to have that title.
Time to go.