In Depth

Coronavirus: just how bad was the Covid crisis in UK care homes?

Nearly 1,000 whistle-blowers alerted watchdog to unsafe practices at peak of pandemic

Dozens of care homes underwent emergency inspections during lockdown amid allegations that residents and staff were being dangerously exposed to coronavirus, according to reports.

Around 50 homes have undergone fast-tracked inspections by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) since March, after allegedly failing to follow safety procedures around Covid-19, says The Telegraph.

How were care homes handled?

At the peak of the pandemic, the CQC received nearly 1,000 whistle-blower reports from care workers concerned about unsafe practices and “poor care” in their workplaces, documents seen by The Telegraph show.

The Unison union “submitted several official grievances to the CQC at the height of the lockdown on behalf of low-paid staff members”, says the newspaper. 

In some cases, staff with “persistent coughs” were allegedly told to come into work, and others were allowed to work across several homes despite the risk of spreading infection. Staff claim they were threatened with the sack to prevent them speaking out. 

“Care workers were pressured to work despite showing symptoms or needing to shield, or not told about colleagues or residents testing positive,” said Unison senior national officer Gavin Edwards. “Many have not been fairly paid while sick, causing extreme financial hardship.

“No wonder the virus spread so rapidly, causing so many deaths. Lessons must be learned – and quickly.”

How many people died in care homes?

A recent survey of almost 9,000 care homes in England by the Office for National Statistics found that those which use low-paid agency workers, or that do not offer sick pay, were 1.58 times more likely to have higher levels of infection.

The newly published research found that 56% of the care homes had reported at least one confirmed case of coronavirus. In these residences, an average of 20% of residents and 7% of staff tested positive for Covid-19. 

The figures for care home deaths involving Covid-19 are also bleak, totalling 19,394 between 2 March to 12 June, according to ONS data.

This total accounts for almost a third (29.3%) of the overall 66,112 deaths of care home residents over the period. Of the coronavirus deaths, 74.9% occured in a care home and 24.8% in a hospital.

Are care homes or the government to blame?

The allegations of widespread unsafe practices comes days after Boris Johnson provoked anger by suggesting that “too many care homes didn’t really follow the [coronavirus] procedures in the way that they could have”.

The Independent Care Group, which represents front-line care workers, described the prime minister’s comments to reporters on Monday as a “real slap in the face”, while Labour demanded a public apology.

Keir Starmer tweeted that “the government’s own advice at the start of the pandemic said people in care homes were ‘very unlikely’ to be infected. Now Boris Johnson is trying to shift the blame. Shameful.” 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock later attempted to soften Johnson’s criticism, telling the House of Commons: “The PM was explaining that because asymptomatic transmission was not known about, the correct procedures were therefore not known.” 

Hancock said that the government had been been “constantly learning about this virus from the start and improving procedures all the way through”.

But Mark Adams, who runs the charity Community Integrated Care, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Johnson’s comments were “cowardly” and a “travesty of leadership”.

“If this is genuinely his view, I think we're almost entering a Kafkaesque alternative reality where the government sets the rules, we follow them, they don't like the results, they then deny setting the rules and blame the people that were trying to do their best,” Adams said.

Care England, the largest body representing independent care homes, has also accused the government of delays over issuing new guidance for visitors to care homes. 

Responding to the criticisms, White Hall sources told The Telegraph that care homes bosses “must accept their share of the blame”.

“Obviously, the government has to face up to the fact that much of the guidance came too late, and the personal protection equipment (PPE) and testing was a disaster,” an insider said. “But some of these, care providers are no angels either.”

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