“When I first asked for a list of all the elderly care homes, we did not have one, which I find totally extraordinary saying, but it is true.”

That’s what Matt Hancock told the Health and Science and Technology Committees last week. He’d been challenged on the claim that the government had “tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes”. One obstacle, he said, was that “we did not have the data”.

Labour MP Barbara Keeley seemed to share the Health Secretary’s astonishment. She put it to him later in the session that “there are organisations like Care England and the National Care Forum that are perfectly capable of providing lists of providers and perfectly capable of advising the government”.

Mr Hancock replied: “Well, absolutely we were in contact with those organisations throughout, and indeed the CQC [Care Quality Commission], but none of these lists is comprehensive.”

But, on closer inspection, his claims don’t add up.

There was a list

All care homes in England must be registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC), which regulates the social care sector. The CQC Directory is published online and older versions dating back to 2012 are available on the regulator’s website. Once you’ve applied the right filters to the spreadsheet, the database provides a list of all the elderly care homes in England.

It’s not clear when during the pandemic Mr Hancock first asked for the list, but an archived version of the CQC webpage from 19 January 2020 says of the Directory: “We usually update this file once a week.” The next furthest-back archived page (from September 2019) contains the same sentence. Update, 17 June 2021: FactCheck understands that the data that includes how care homes are registered is updated monthly.

So, whenever Mr Hancock asked for one, an up-to-date list of all elderly care homes in England should have been in the public domain on the CQC website.

‘None of these lists is comprehensive’

It’s not clear why Mr Hancock said “none of these lists is comprehensive” because, according to emails sent to FactCheck in February this year, his own Department used the CQC Directory to identify all the elderly care homes in England that were eligible for vaccines at the time.

In our exchange with the Department, the only issue it identified with the CQC Directory was that, even with a number of “filters” on the spreadsheet, it included slightly too many elderly care homes, some of which were closed for refurbishment or hadn’t yet opened to residents.

At no point did the Department suggest that the CQC Directory omitted any elderly care homes: the issue was that it slightly over-counted, not under-counted. Even so, those extraneous entries amounted to just 2 per cent of those technically listed as elderly care homes, according to our February 2021 analysis.

FactCheck understands that there was no major change to the database between the start of the pandemic and February this year. So if the Department considered the CQC Directory comprehensive for vaccine rollout purposes in February 2021, why did it not use it in the first wave?

After this article was published, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Our focus throughout this global pandemic has been on saving lives and one of our top priorities has been protecting people in adult social care.

“As the Health and Social Care Secretary made clear, an accurate list of all care homes was not readily available at the start of the pandemic. While the list of CQC-registered care homes is publicly available, it is largely the responsibility of providers to inform CQC of any changes so it therefore may not be up-to-date and there were care homes which are not registered with CQC and needed to be taken into account.

“We have learned lessons through COVID-19 and taken action to work much more closely with the CQC, local authorities, NHS England and providers to improve the available data on adult social care.”

FactCheck verdict

Matt Hancock told MPs that when he “first asked for a list of all the elderly care homes, we did not have one”. He later said none of the lists compiled by various organisations was “comprehensive”.

But there is a database of all the elderly care homes in England – the Care Quality Commission Directory – and it should have been available online throughout the pandemic and before.

Mr Hancock’s Department seems to consider the CQC Directory to be comprehensive because it used it to identify elderly care homes eligible for the vaccine rollout in February 2021.