It is estimated that more than 13,000 residents of care homes have died after testing positive for coronavirus. The threat of the disease was so severe that a surreal farewell was permitted only through copious amounts of protective gear and staff left to care for loved ones. As with so many who have died from coronavirus in care homes, they were left to die without the company of their family because of the Public Health England restrictions.
The epidemic in care homes ranks worst of all mistakes in tackling coronavirus
Of all of the UK’s mistakes in tackling coronavirus, the epidemic in care homes is the worst. The statistics tell the tragedy: in the UK, 30 per cent of all deaths that state coronavirus as the cause are in care homes. The excess deaths data suggests it could be worse: 26,000 more dead in care homes since the pandemic began compared to the same period last year. The story is the same across all corners of the UK: in Northern Ireland, care homes make up over half of Covid-19-related deaths. And in Scotland, 47 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths have occurred in care homes.
Health professionals already know why care homes were under resourced and utterly ill-prepared for the crisis. As coronavirus shifted from a background threat to an all-encompassing one, Britons were warned that the NHS could be overwhelmed. Doctors faced unenviable decisions about who to treat in hospital.
Thousands of elderly patients were discharged into care homes. To lockdown sceptics, they were deemed likely to die anyway. For politicians, they are unavoidable casualties. In the hierarchy of priorities, nobody gave care workers or their clients much thought. According to NHS England, 25,000 patients were discharged from hospitals to care homes between March 17 and April 16 — the critical period before testing was widely available.
Care homes could not cope
Care homes warned that they could not cope. David Oliver, a consultant physician, says the decisions “were made in good faith by local clinicians for understandable reasons in a very pressing and constrained context”. But he admits “one major error” was made, the assumption “that care homes could cope with isolating patients and infection control measures in the same way a hospital could”.
We cannot wait for an enquiry
The UK’s elderly population cannot wait until the inevitable inquiry into the government’s crisis response. The UK has passed its first peak, but a second wave of infections may come later this year. The situation has improved in some parts — thanks to £3.2bn of extra funding, more protective equipment, and better levels of testing. But more is still needed to restructure elderly care for the coronavirus age. Adam Gordon, professor of care of older people at Nottingham university, warns against “ambiguity” in the long-awaited official guidance on elderly care. “There is still a big grey area about what should happen to patients discharged from hospitals. In some instances, care homes are looking at 14-day isolation inside the facilities or creating zones, where COVID patients are kept separate from non-COVID residents,” he says. “Clearer advice from central government” is critical.
The government have made several mistakes in its strategy for tackling the coronavirus, non-more so than its strategy for care homes. The tragedy has led to many deaths with residents left to die alone without the comfort of their loved ones.
The pandemic is now coming under control, but we cannot afford to wait for an enquiry and delays in providing advice to care homes, should a second spike of COVID-19 come our way.
All those who work in social care are aware of the promises made by government, and history is littered with bygone promises of numerous enquiries, and white papers. What we need is leadership from the prime minister not more delaying tactics, and more clear guidance from Public Health England, if we are to prepare for a second spike of COVID-19.
The government must realise that they have lost the peoples trust. Ministers insist that they had tried to “throw a protective ring around care homes”. But these words sound hollow for staff who endured the catastrophe, and families who have lost their loved ones. Not everyone could have been saved, but not everybody needed to be lost.
Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy