28 May 2021: A political drama played out this week on the Government’s response to the pandemic. During seven hours of evidence to MPs, the former chief advisor to the Prime Minster set out some serious allegations about Government failings which he said meant ‘tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to’. Dominic Cummings was scathing about the Government’s handling of the virus in social care, calling the protective ring Matt Hancock claimed to have put around the sector “nonsense”.
Of course, people living and working in care have known this all along. Our helpline had been hearing from families at the outset of the pandemic worried about the lack of PPE and testing in care homes, about movement of staff between settings, about the discharge of patients into care without testing. Those living in care and their families felt abandoned, as the Government mantra to ‘protect the NHS’ left them without even the basic protections.
The systems designed to protect older people failed them. Not just the Department of Health and Social Care but the regulator too which was quick to pause routine inspections (and still has not resumed them) and failed to speak out to prevent the crisis unfolding in care. There was a wholesale retreat from care homes as CQC inspectors, health practitioners, safeguarding teams, social workers and other professionals stayed away. Care workers were left to do what they could, to protect a group identified as being at high risk from the virus, without even the basic tools to help them.
As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care now attempts to explain why they failed to test patients discharged into care homes, a report on this by Public Health England appeared out of the blue yesterday (although it is dated April). It concludes that the impact of suspected transmission between hospitals and care homes between 30 January and 12 October 2020 was “relatively small” (contributing to 1.6% of care home outbreaks). This is an extraordinary conclusion to arrive at when testing simply wasn’t taking place at the beginning of the pandemic, for those being discharged or in care homes. The report admits as much when it says (buried in the methodology) such data “would not be identified if the admitted patient was not tested for COVID-19 either due to asymptomatic status or testing practices”.
However, the data reveals a very different picture once testing kicks in, with a dramatic decline in transmission of the virus from hospitals to care homes. This begs the question why a blanket two week quarantine is still being imposed on care home residents following a hospital stay. Our helpline hears of the dire impact this is having on older people’s wellbeing. A fear persists that care users were abandoned at the outset of the pandemic and they are still being left behind now.
At the heart of the drama of the week, in the allegations and statistics, are people’s lives. Lives that have been lost, shattered and irreversibly changed. Whilst care users and their families may not have heard anything they didn’t already know, to hear it after 14 long months and so much unnecessary loss is still devastating, especially for the families left behind.