Fresh concerns have been raised about the government’s commitment to testing social care service-users and staff – despite new ministerial announcements – following reports that suggest thousands of care home residents have died after being infected with coronavirus.
This week saw a series of reports that suggest deaths from COVID-19 in care homes have been vastly under-reported, with one new piece of research suggesting that about half of deaths from the virus across five European countries* had come in care homes.
The government’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said on Monday that about one in seven care homes across the country had registered cases of COVID-19.
And one of the largest care home providers said that more than 300 of its residents had died with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, while another said there had been more than 200 deaths among residents of its homes.
The government also admitted on Tuesday that only about 500 social care workers had been tested for COVID-19 so far.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC), which itself has been criticised for its slow response to the pandemic, said yesterday that adult social care providers were saying that COVID-19 was having “a devastating impact on both the people they care for and their staff”.
And new official figures suggested that a quarter of deaths in Scotland linked to COVID-19 had taken place in care homes.
Meanwhile, the disability charity Leonard Cheshire told Disability News Service yesterday that 16 of its care homes – it runs about 120 in total across the UK – had had a confirmed case of the virus.
Following several days of disturbing reports about unreported deaths in residential care, and the government’s failure to take protective action for service-users, the health and social care secretary Matt Hancock finally announced yesterday (Wednesday) that all care home residents with COVID-19 symptoms – although apparently not those older and disabled people receiving care and support in their own homes – would now be tested for the virus.
All patients discharged from hospital will also be tested for the virus before being admitted into care homes, said Hancock (pictured, right, at last year’s Tory party conference).
And all social care workers who need a test because of COVID-19 symptoms – and members of their household – will have access to one.
Last night, Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care published its new social care action plan, which focuses on social care service-providers, the social care workforce and the public sector.
The action plan claims that the “first five symptomatic residents in a care home setting with an outbreak” are already being tested.
But Doug Paulley, who lives in a Leonard Cheshire care home in north Yorkshire, said that had not happened to his fellow residents.
He said that only one of three fellow residents who had shown symptoms of COVID-19 had been tested by the NHS.
Because Leonard Cheshire was unable to rule out coronavirus, all the residents have had to stay in their rooms for the past 11 days, apart from occasional visits to the garden.
One senior care worker had to take two weeks off work because a family member was showing potential symptoms.
Because the care worker was unable to be tested, he had not been able to work.
Paulley said: “We have all been stuck in lockdown for 11 days because the NHS will not test.”
But he said his biggest concern about living in a care home during the pandemic was being able to continue to secure the care he needs.
He said: “You’re relying on people coming from Leeds 10 miles away to do care in their low-paid, under-recognised job, putting themselves and their families at risk of catching it in the care home or on the bus on the way.
“I’m incredibly grateful to them but it also makes you feel vulnerable.”
Speaking before Hancock’s announcement on testing, Paulley said: “It does feel as if we are not talked about or being represented.”
He said the staff at his home had made it clear that they had asked for testing “and the NHS has said no”.
He also said Leonard Cheshire had not been communicating well with its residents about how the charity would keep the home running during the crisis, and there had been no service-user involvement, despite his repeated requests for more information.
A Leonard Cheshire spokesperson, also speaking before yesterday’s government announcements, said: “Like other care providers, we share concerns about the scale of testing to date.”
He said the disability charity had lobbied more than 80 MPs and the government to increase testing for social care staff and service-users.
He said: “It is crucial that testing is made available for care workers, so that desperately needed staff who are confirmed to not have COVID-19 can return to work.”
He said the charity had been communicating advice and guidance to staff, residents and families as it developed [Paulley said there had been just one letter from Leonard Cheshire to residents throughout the crisis] with managers “given the latest information to discuss with residents and answer questions as required, based on their knowledge of the people they support.
“We are always interested in the thoughts and ideas of the people who use our services, and mechanisms for user involvement and engagement are in place across the UK.
“This is a time for everyone to work collectively.”
Labour’s new shadow minister for social care, Liz Kendall, said: “Increased testing for care home residents and care staff is essential to tackling the emerging crisis in social care and something Labour has long been calling for.
“We look forward to seeing details of how this latest commitment will be delivered, with only 500 care staff having been tested to date.
“The government has rightly said the NHS will get whatever resources it needs to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This must also apply to social care, which needs a much greater priority and focus than it has had so far.
“Alongside this, ministers must act to ensure all care home and home care staff get the PPE [personal protective equipment] they need and publish daily figures on deaths outside hospitals, including in care homes, so we know the full scale of the challenge we face.”
*Italy, Spain, France, Ireland and Belgium
**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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