The government has been accused by MPs of a “reckless and negligent” approach to the social care sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A report by the Commons public accounts committee contrasts the government’s early actions to protect the NHS with its delayed, inconsistent and at times negligent actions on social care.
The committee’s report concludes: “This pandemic has shown the tragic impact of delaying much needed social care reform, and instead treating the sector as the NHS’s poor relation.”
A key criticism comes over the decision to discharge 25,000 NHS patients into care homes without first testing them for coronavirus – in the period up to 15 April – which the committee says was an “appalling error”.
As a result, between 9 March and 17 May, around 5,900 care homes, more than a third of care homes across England, reported at least one outbreak of coronavirus.
The report says: “When we challenged the Department and the NHS on such a reckless and negligent policy, the Department told us that when the NHS issued its guidance in March COVID-19 was not widespread.”
It also highlights the government’s failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to the social care sector – while also changing guidance on the use of PPE 40 times – and the failure to test social care staff and volunteers during the first weeks of the crisis.
Between 6 April and 19 May, the report says, “more than 80 per cent of local resilience forums reported that PPE was having a high or significant disruptive impact in their area across health and social care services, putting staff and others at risk”.
Among its other criticisms, the report says it had not been clear who was leading on the government’s social care response to the pandemic.
And it highlighted how – although various pieces of guidance had been produced earlier – it took the government until 15 April to publish its action plan for adult social care, more than four weeks after the initial NHS letter on plans to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The committee does not appear to have taken evidence from any disabled people’s organisation or service-user during its inquiry, but the report still highlights three of the 17 ways in which the government breached the rights of disabled people, according to research published last week by Disability News Service.
Meg Hillier, the committee’s Labour chair, said: “The deaths of people in care homes devastated many, many families.
“They and we don’t have time for promises and slogans, or exercises in blame.
“We weren’t prepared for the first wave.
“Putting all else aside, government must use the narrow window we have now to plan for a second wave. Lives depend upon getting our response right.”
For the Liberal Democrats, Sarah Olney, a member of the committee, said: “Ministers must read and act on this report before it is too late to prepare for a second wave.
“That means rapidly upscaling the strategy to test, trace and isolate every case of coronavirus to keep people safe and prevent new surges.
“To improve public confidence, the prime minister must set out a timetable for the independent inquiry into the government’s actions.
“With that, we can ensure the same mistakes never happen again.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it would respond to the report in due course.
But a DHSC spokesperson said: “Throughout this unprecedented global pandemic we have been working closely with the sector and public health experts to put in place guidance and support for adult social care.
“Alongside an extra £1.3 billion to support the hospital discharge process, we have provided 172 million items of PPE to the social care sector since the start of the pandemic and are testing all residents and staff, including repeat testing for staff and residents in care homes for over 65s or those with dementia.
“We know there is a need for a long-term solution for social care and we will bring forward a plan that puts social care on a sustainable footing to ensure the reforms will last long into the future.”
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
Picture: Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (right)
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