Call for ‘clear winter plan’ to protect care homes

The Government must set out a “clear winter plan” to protect care homes, Labour has said, amid signs they are experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases.

Action must not be as “slow and chaotic” as it was at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, shadow minister for social care Liz Kendall has warned.

She has outlined her concerns in a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, after the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) warned of the “first signs” of a rise in confirmed Covid-19 cases.

In a letter to providers on Friday, Stuart Miller, director of adult social care delivery, said the care workforce is most affected, but “clearly” there is a risk that the virus will spread to residents and in some cases already has.

Labour MP Ms Kendall said reports of rising infection rates in care homes are “a matter of serious concern”, while problems accessing tests are “especially worrying”.

She wrote: “With winter and the flu season fast approaching, it is vital that the Government now puts in place a clear winter plan to support social care.

“The Government must learn the lessons from mistakes that have been made so far, and show users, families and staff that social care will be a top priority in the months ahead.”

She added: “Getting on top of challenges faced by social care ahead of winter is vital – we cannot afford for action to protect care homes and other services to be as slow and chaotic as it was at the start of this pandemic.”

Ms Kendall is calling for action in five areas to ensure past “mistakes” are not repeated.

Weekly, rapid testing of care staff across all care settings must take place, she said, adding that it “beggars belief” that Care Quality Commission inspectors are not tested before entering homes.

And ministers must ensure no-one with coronavirus is discharged from hospital into a care home.

Families need extra support, such as respite breaks for those who have taken on new caring responsibilities since the pandemic began, Ms Kendall added.

And relatives of care home residents should be given access to regular testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to help them safely visit and support their loved ones.

Care staff must have access to enough PPE, while the overall social care sector will need additional resources, including an “immediate cash injection”.

She is calling for the DHSC to publish a plan for the long-term funding and provision of social care by the end of the year.

Unison said it feels like the government is “sleepwalking into another care home catastophe” amid testing concerns.

Assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The infection control fund money clearly isn’t doing what was intended. Unison pushed for it to be used so care workers get full pay while sick, but in many places this still isn’t happening.

“Huge numbers of care staff face a massive drop in pay if they do the right thing and stay away from work with Covid-19 symptoms.

“As the virus continues to spread, it’s vital ministers extend the fund and make it mandatory that employers must use it to pay care workers.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Throughout our coronavirus response we have been doing everything we can to ensure all staff and residents in care homes are protected. We are testing all residents and staff, have provided 208 million items of PPE and ring-fenced £600 million to prevent infections in care homes, with a further £3.7 billion available to councils to address pressures caused by the pandemic, including in adult social care.

“The adult social care winter plan will be published shortly to ensure we have robust plans in place for the additional pressures we may face this winter, and to protect both the people who need care and the workforce that supports them.”