A report by the health and social care committee found that the government’s testing strategy had moved too slowly and put patients, care home residents, and care staff at avoidable risk.
Delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic’, found that in the early stages of the pandemic, where testing was on offer to staff, access was limited and turnaround time for results was too long.
It also revealed that experts from the care sector raised concerns in March, when the NHS announced there would be an ‘urgent discharge of all hospital inpatients who were medically fit to leave’ without the patients or care staff being tested.
Sir Robert Francis, chair of Healthwatch England, was asked to comment on the announcement at the time.
‘When I first saw the initial guidance that patients were to be discharged within two hours of being declared medically fit, I wondered how that could possibly happen safely,’ said Sir Robert.
‘We heard stories that rather confirmed that, sadly. The idea that people might be discharged into that care home without anyone knowing whether they have COVID-19 or not seems very concerning.
‘It is very important that there are properly run facilities, with the ability and capacity to look after people well and safely.’
The report also revealed that in May, Vic Rayner, executive director, National Care Forum, told the committee that it was ‘absolutely critical’ that all social care workers, including agency staff or those directly employed by care homes, were regularly tested for coronavirus. And that results were received in a timely fashion.
She said testing would be crucial to ensuring that care homes could make proper decisions about who could be in care settings and what further support was required.
She also stressed that, if this didn’t happen, the sector would ‘end up in a position where staff who have done a most extraordinary and incredible job of supporting people in this very difficult climate end up feeling like they are the people who are responsible for the spread of COVID-19’.
The report found that the lack of testing remains a key barrier to providing effective and safe care and recommended there should be a rapid expansion and a sustained rise in the number of tests being conducted.
It also suggested that weekly testing of staff will help lower the risk of infections originating in hospitals.
Responding to the report, Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, said the government runs the risk of allowing coronavirus to spread freely in care homes and hospitals if it does not implement regular testing.
‘Health and care workers must be tested once a week if the virus is to be stopped in its tracks.
‘The government’s failure to ensure regular testing, and speedy results, risks a repeat of the spring when Covid was allowed to spread freely in hospitals and care homes.
‘Health unions came up with a blueprint earlier in the year for how the NHS could safely open up services closed due to Covid. Regular testing topped the list.
‘Yet, almost five months on, the government’s failed to keep its many testing promises. Sorting out the testing mess before winter descends will help reassure staff and patients that their safety is paramount.’
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social care said looking after the health and wellbeing of NHS staff is incredibly important, and the latest NHS People Plan published in July puts staff resilience and wellbeing at its heart.
‘NHS staff with symptoms can access testing as a priority and staff in outbreak areas can access tests if they are asymptomatic.
‘We will continue to expand testing availability as our capacity continues to expand to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.’
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