He said the government “tried” to put a ring of protection around care homes, but claimed it had “extremely limited” powers at the start of the pandemic.
He also said his department did not have a list of elderly care homes.
Critics pointed out that the regulator, the Care Quality Commission, has a publicly available directory on its website that lists all care homes in England. Local authorities also have lists.
Charlie Williams of Covid 19 Bereaved Families For Justice said it was “difficult to understand” why they could not access a list, adding: “The management of the pandemic appears to be marked by a lack of communication between departments, decision-makers and industry leaders. . “
Ghost Communities and Local Government Secretary Steve Reed said it was an “astonishing” admission by the Health Secretary who should have had the information “at hand.”
He added: “Once again, Matt Hancock is trying to pass the buck to councils and government officials in order to turn away from his own failure to protect residents of nursing homes.”
The huge number of nursing home deaths during the first wave has become one of the main mistakes the public inquiry will examine.
Mr Hancock told MPs yesterday: “I am Secretary of State for Health and Social Affairs. Yet at the start of this pandemic, the powers I had over social care were extremely limited.
“Formal powers belong to local government and formally social care is the responsibility of local government, but I feel it deeply.
“We didn’t have the data. When I first asked for a list of all retirement homes, we did not have one. Which I find totally extraordinary, but it’s true.
“We just didn’t have the levers and had to invent a whole series of them. We now have much better data.
The health secretary also said nursing home deaths “weigh heavily on me and always will.”
He said a decision not to prioritize testing for patients referred to care homes was partly made on the advice that testing people without symptoms would produce false negatives.
It comes after former senior aide to the prime minister Dominic Cummings said claims the government put a protective shield around nursing homes at the start of the pandemic were “complete nonsense”.
The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.