Another day, another avalanche of criticism for the Government – this time on care homes.
The pressure around these arguably intensified last week when Ros Altmann, a Conservative peer and former work and pensions minister, said that residents across the country had been “abandoned like lambs to the slaughter”.
Since then, stories of care homes have filled the pages of newspapers, with suggestions that the death toll is being underestimated (some indicate it could be as much as 4,000) due to lack of testing.
More wider criticisms are that the Government has not sorted out enough PPE equipment, as well as not including care home fatalities in official estimates of deaths – as other countries have done.
Peter Kyle, the Labour MP, has called for a dedicated minister to “shout from the rafters about the horrors unfolding in our care”.
It’s true that the Government has struggled in a number of ways to meet care home needs, not least as it’s still not hitting general testing targets. Ministers pledged to reach 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, but have not yet managed 15,000.
In terms of the care home industry, this translates to 500 care home staff being tested so far. Care England has said that one-third of employees are self-isolating or have symptoms.
PPE equipment is also an issue, with care homes reportedly resorting to getting it off dentists, construction companies and hair salons. Although a spokesman for the Government has said it has delivered 7.8 million pieces of it to over 26,000 care homes, the impact is not being felt enough.
In response to the backlash, Matt Hancock promised to dramatically increase Coronavirus testing in care homes, and the Department of Health and Social Care has today published a list of steps it is taking to aid the fight, such as all symptomatic care residents being “tested for COVID-19 as testing capacity to continues to increase”.
In addition, hospital patients who’ve been discharged will be tested before going back into care homes, and all social care staff who need a test will get one, as well as anyone they live with.
As for the Government’s exclusion of care home fatalities from death tolls, the head of Public Health England said that they are working towards changing this.
The main reason for this appears, at least, to be the speed at which hospitals and non-hospital settings can record deaths, with it being understandably faster for the former – thanks to the number of doctors on site.
Deaths outside such settings can take longer to process because of the time it takes for post-mortems, funerals and paperwork to pass through the coroners’ office. It’s sensational to say these are being “airbrushed out”, as some have claimed.
Ultimately these three areas – ramping up tests, PPE and changing how deaths are recorded – are the main means through which the Government can help.
In regards to testing shortages, it makes even more of a case for the Government to decentralise the means through which it produces them, with universities, private laboratories and other organisations enrolled to create these – alongside state-run laboratories.
Not least because of the amount of locations these need to get to. Whereas there are approximately 200 hospitals to deliver tests to, there are around 11,000 care homes. To get them tests and equipment at speed, we need more providers around the UK.
At the same time, it’s important to maintain a sense of realism about the challenges care homes face, whose residents are twice as likely as the general population to have long-term conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, and are therefore more susceptible, in spite of the best interventions.
Helen Whately, the Social Care Minister, has been ridiculed for her comments on care homes. At one point she said staff are “used to” infection control – considering homes receive bouts of seasonal flu. But she is right: given the close proximity of residents, employees are trained to prevent illness spreading. As with other illnesses, it has to additionally be accepted that there are limits to what carers – and the Government – can do.
Fundamentally, some of the rhetoric around care homes has been unhelpful. Altmann’s “lambs to the slaughter” point may help drive home a point, but it is no reassurance to separated families throughout the country – many of whom have been worried for weeks about loved ones, even if the media interest in care homes has only peaked recently.
Critics of the Government must remember that for some families, care homes are the only choice they have to keep their relatives safe; that there is no alternative, better solution for them at this time. They must also remember that many residents can read and hear, and can be panicked by media fearmongering too.
Yes, it is imperative we do all we can to help people in care homes; equipment must be sent their way as quickly as possible, and it is especially important that their carers are tested – so as not to pass on the disease. Yes, it is important to speak up for those who cannot. But we must also not sensationalise this area; it is already tough enough for many.