Matt Hancock has faced criticism in recent weeks over his handling of Covid-19 in care homes during the first wave of the pandemic.

Under particular scrutiny is the fact that hospital patients in England did not have to be tested for the virus before being discharged into care homes until mid-April last year (when the country had already been in lockdown for several weeks).

But if you heard the health secretary’s evidence to the Commons Science and Technology and Health Committees yesterday, you might think that this policy wasn’t all that significant anyway. Mr Hancock told MPs:

“The best estimate from Public Health England is that 1.6 per cent of the transmission into care homes came through this route.”

He’s referring to a PHE report published last month.

The paper finds that patients who had picked up their infection in hospital were linked to 97 care home outbreaks between January and September 2020, which is 1.6 per cent of all recorded care home outbreaks over the period. The majority took place between March and April.

While tragic for the residents and their families, that would be – as the PHE paper says – a “relatively small” contribution to the wider care home epidemic.

But there’s a catch. The PHE analysis only looks at people who had their Covid-19 infection confirmed with a test. Remember: the whole crux of this row is that patients were not routinely tested before going into care homes until 16 April, and testing for all care home residents and staff didn’t come in until mid-May.

It’s hard to estimate the scale of the missing data, or what effect it would have on the overall conclusions.

Figures from NHS England show that between 30 January and 16 April, some 78,000 patients were discharged into care homes from hospital. Of those, 25,000 were discharged between 17 March and 16 April – the height of the first wave. Some of these patients will have been tested for coronavirus, but we don’t know how many.

So while the PHE analysis does give some insight, it can’t tell us definitively what proportion of care home outbreaks were caused by people discharged from hospital.

This problem was put to Mr Hancock during the evidence session. He said that the PHE analysis “is the best assessment that can be made, given […] the facts on the ground, what is and isn’t measurable”.

The Department of Health and Social Care told FactCheck:

“Every death is a tragedy and our thoughts are with all those who have lost a loved one. A number of studies, including one by PHE, indicate that discharge policies across the UK do not seem to be responsible for a significant number of outbreaks in care homes.

“The Health and Social Care Secretary’s focus throughout this pandemic has been on saving lives. The government has worked tirelessly to build a national testing system from scratch and have provided almost £1.8 billion in specific funding for adult social care including for infection prevention and control, provided billions of items of free PPE and placed care home staff and residents in the highest priority group for vaccinations.”