Calls have been made for an independent inquiry into the management of COVID–19 in the care sector in Hertfordshire, after data showed more than 500 have died from coronavirus in care settings across the county.

In some districts, the death rate from the virus has been significantly higher than in others, leading Liberal Democrat County Councillor Stephen Giles-Medhurst to call for a “full, independent inquiry”.

Speaking at a meeting of Herts County Council’s special cabinet panel, on Wednesday (June 3) he said he had “considerable concerns” at the number of deaths in care settings.

He said that at the very least the county council needed to understand why the number of deaths in care homes had been so high – and the reasons for the differential death rates.

“It’s important for Hertfordshire residents to understand what has happened,” he said.

But at the meeting, members of the special cabinet panel voted against the move for the independent inquiry.

Deputy leader of the council Cllr Teresa Heritage said a full report would be brought to panel meetings or to cabinet – and that she could not support an independent inquiry.

And executive member for resources and performance Cllr Ralph Sangster said there would be a broader assessment of how the council responded – and that it would seem “inappropriate ” to do a review on one particular area.

Meanwhile executive member for adult care and health Cllr Richard Roberts highlighted the council’s ongoing study of the data surrounding COVID-19, which would be brought to a future meeting of the special cabinet panel.

And he said the next meeting of the county’s Health and Wellbeing Board – which brings together councils and health organisations – would already look at the ongoing inter-agency work to tackle the pandemic.

At the meeting Cllr Roberts said that deaths in care homes had now dropped to “very very low levels”.

Director of adult care services Iain MacBeath said there were already studies into the death rates and infection rates in Hertfordshire care homes.

He said that Hertfordshire – like some other counties bordering London – had been affected by the pandemic more quickly than others.

And he suggested that most of the spread of the virus through care homes was by people who were symptom-free – pointing to staff carrying COVID-19 who unwittingly went into work before tests were available.

But he also said that whole care home testing was now in place – and he pointed to the 25,000 pieces of ‘personal protective equipment’ being used in the county’s care homes every day.

He said that as soon as government advice on PPE changed, the council had immediately got the message to care homes – and made sure there was an adequate supply.

Director of public health Prof Jim McManus suggested that the bulk of spread nationally – not just in care homes – has been through asymptomatic people.

He said the plan in Hertfordshire including the use of PPE, testing, infection control, enhanced cleaning of care homes and ‘cohorting’ of care home staff – was designed to reduce and disrupt infection.

He added: “In my view we have acted on the evidence,” and stressed that the county council had gone beyond government guidance on the use of PPE.