Care Homes 'Thrown to the Wolves' in Coronavirus Pandemic

Peter Russell

July 29, 2020

The Government's approach to social care during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic was "slow, inconsistent and, at times, negligent", the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said on Wednesday.

The parliamentary public spending watchdog said that compared with the attention given to protect the NHS during the crisis, the pandemic had exposed the social care sector as a "poor relation" caused by "years of inattention, funding cuts and delayed reforms".

The report, Readying the NHS and social care for the COVID-19 peak, highlighted an "appalling error" committed when 25,000 patients were discharged from hospitals into care homes without ensuring all were first tested for COVID-19, despite clear evidence of asymptomatic transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it was committed to bring forward a proposal for a long-term solution for the social care sector, although it gave no indication of a timescale.

Care Homes Were 'Ravaged and Thrown to the Wolves'

In an assessment of the evidence, Meg Hillier MP, the PAC chair, said: "The failure to provide adequate PPE [personal protective equipment] or testing to the millions of staff and volunteers who risked their lives to help us through the first peak of the crisis is a sad, low moment in our national response.

"Our care homes were effectively thrown to the wolves, and the virus has ravaged some of them.

"Vulnerable people surviving the first wave have been isolated for months, in the absence of a functional tracing and containment system. Yet there were bold and ambitious claims made by ministers about the roll out of test, track, and trace that don't match the reality."

The PAC report said that while nobody could have expected a perfect response at the start of the pandemic, "the Government urgently needs to reflect, acknowledge its mistakes, and learn from them as well as from what has worked".

It said the main lesson to be learned was the importance of "giving adult social care equal support to the NHS and considering them as two parts of a single system, adequately funded and with clear accountability arrangements".

It said it was also concerned about staff and volunteers in health and social care "who have endured the strain and trauma of responding to COVID-19 for many months", and who were now expected to "cope with future peaks".

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 65 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."

The Department said it would consider the report and respond in due course.

Health and Social Care 'Two Sides of the Same Coin'

Prof Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said: "This report makes a forensic analysis of many of the positives and negatives at the peak of the pandemic. 

"We urge the Government to implement the recommendations in order that the nation is better prepared for future spikes and also to ensure that social care is recognised as an intrinsic part of the health and social care system. 

"Health and social care are but two sides of the same coin and cannot be treated as separate entities."

The Alzheimer's Society said care home residents were abandoned at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, causing outbreaks to spread unchecked.

It said the pandemic had "laid bare the impact of decades of underinvestment in social care" and underlined the need to prepare the sector for a possible resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

Fiona Carragher, the Society's director of research and influencing, commented: "Right from the start, we raised concerns about discharging patients into care homes hastily and this report sadly vindicates these concerns. Too late for the thousands of people who have died, the largest number of whom have been people with dementia, each death leaving behind a heartbroken family."

Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive at the Health Foundation, said: "In the next year we must see long-overdue reform which should include action to improve pay and conditions for staff, stabilise the care provider market, increase access to publicly funded services, and provide greater protection for people against social care costs."

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