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Feature: ‘Protective ring’ around care homes not grounded in reality

More than 39,000 people died of coronavirus in care homes in England in the year from 10 April 2020 to 31 March 2021, new figures compiled by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) have revealed.

The data, which shows how the virus spread across the country, revealed that the highest number of deaths in a single care home was 44 and that 21 homes had more than 30 Covid-19-related deaths.

Care homes in the North West had the most Covid-related deaths in the first wave of the pandemic, while those in the South East were hardest hit in the second.

The CQC says it has not found a link between standards of care in a home and the number of deaths, adding that, although the data relates to deaths of people who were care home residents, many of them did not die in or contract Covid-19 in a care home.

Kate Terroni, CQC’s chief inspector for adult social care, said: ‘In considering this data it is important to remember that every number represents a life lost, and families, friends and those who cared for them who are having to face the sadness and consequences of their death.

‘We are grateful for the time that families who lost their loved ones during the pandemic have spent meeting with us and the personal experiences they have shared.

‘These discussions have helped us shape our thinking around the highly sensitive issue of publishing information on the numbers of death notifications involving Covid-19 received from individual care homes.

‘We have a duty to be transparent and to act in the public interest, and we made a commitment to publish data at this level, but only once we felt were able to do so as accurately and safely as possible given the complexity and sensitivity of the data.

‘In doing so, we aim to provide a more comprehensive picture of the impact of Covid-19 on care homes, the people living in them and their families. It is important to be clear, however, that although this data relates to deaths of people who were care home residents, many of them did not die in or contract Covid-19 in a care home.’

Too little, too late

woman in black tank top covering her face with her hands

Care providers and experts say this data proves that the government’s claim of ‘a protective ring’ around care homes was not grounded in reality.

They say the scale of the impact of Covid-19 on social care was not inevitable and that central government support for social care during the pandemic was often too little, too late, particularly during the first wave.

Hugh Alderwick, head of policy at the Health Foundation, said: ‘People with care needs have faced higher risk from Covid-19 than the general population. And the effects of Covid-19 on care homes have been closely linked to the prevalence of Covid-19 in the community, with some areas hit harder than others.

‘But what national policymakers do to protect social care still matters and the scale of the impact of Covid-19 on social care was not inevitable. Central government support for social care during the pandemic was often too little, too late, particularly during the first wave.

‘The government’s claim of ‘a protective ring’ around care homes was not grounded in reality. The social care system that entered the pandemic was underfunded, understaffed, and undervalued, scarred by decades of political neglect.

‘These longstanding structural issues shaped the policy response to Covid-19 and effects of the pandemic on the system.’

Mike Padgham, chair of the Independent Care Group (ICG) said the priority now is to force the government into setting a deadline for getting the sector the reform it needs to ensure it is not left in crisis and vulnerable again.

‘Every Covid-19 death is the sad loss of a much-loved husband or wife, parent or grand-parent, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or friend.

‘As care providers today, we mourn each and every one of them.

‘All care and nursing homes that have lost residents to Covid-19 have been left changed, shell-shocked and exhausted after shedding blood, sweat and tears to the task of keeping residents and staff as safe as they possibly could in the face of a cruel, indiscriminate and unprecedented pandemic.

‘This is a perfect moment to thank the amazing social care staff across the country who have performed miracles to keep care and nursing home residents and people being cared for in their own home as safe as possible. They have been magnificent. We thank them and owe them a huge debt of gratitude.’

 A generation of neglect

woman in white robe sitting on chair

Mr Padgham said: ‘The reasons that social care settings were so vulnerable to Covid-19 are many.

‘Government after government, of all political party, have failed to tackle the social care issue. Instead, a generation of neglect of the sector, which has seen £8bn cut from social care budgets since 2010, some 1.5m people living without the care they need and 120,000 vacancies in the sector, left it on its knees, with providers already closing or on the brink of survival.

‘Against this backdrop, the pandemic struck, and social care providers were hit by a brutal virus they were ill-prepared for.

‘As the government struggled to cope it concentrated its efforts on the NHS and social care was virtually abandoned. Poor access to proper testing, poor supply of the right type of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a lack of clear guidance from the government compounded an already dreadful situation.

‘At the same time, as wards overflowed, hospitals were discharging patients into care homes without tests, taking the virus into those care settings and causing many of the deaths we are seeing listed today.

‘It was a perfect storm, a storm that has not abated since.

‘The government hasn’t got everything right but to be fair, this pandemic was unprecedented and any administration would struggle, as they have all over the world. Many things our government has got right, including the rollout of the vaccine, which has been exceptional.

‘We know that Covid-19 hasn’t gone away yet and we are still working hard to keep our care and nursing home safe by keeping all of our restrictions in place. Those homes are safe and we want to get that message across.

‘Many care providers are facing an existential battle to survive. Already on their knees before the pandemic they have been battered by Covid-19, left physically and emotionally exhausted and financially crippled. Rising costs due to the pandemic and the failure of occupancy rates to recover means a real struggle.

‘That means we must now have the reform of social care that we have been promised for a generation.

‘Social care needs better funding, whether through taxation or National Insurance. to create a sector that can cope with rising demand, recover after Covid-19 and properly reward and recognise the staff who have performed miracles this past 16 months.’

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the number of care home resident Covid-19 deaths in England is comparable with or lower than a number of European countries.

‘Every death from coronavirus is a tragedy and our deepest sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones.

‘Throughout the pandemic, we have done all we can to protect vulnerable people in adult social care. We have provided billions of pounds to support the sector including on infection and prevention control measures, free PPE, priority vaccinations and additional testing.

‘As a result, 93% of residents and over 75% of eligible staff in care home settings have had two vaccine doses.

‘As the data shows, the number of care home resident deaths as a percentage of all Covid-19 deaths in England is comparable with or lower than a number of European countries.’

Photo Credit – Haydn Golden, engin akyurt

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