Coronavirus: England ‘threw care home staff to the wolves’ during pandemic

Policy of discharging 25,000 patients from English hospitals to care homes without testing for Covid-19 put lives at risk

A medical worker carries out coronavirus tests in the UK. REUTERS/Carl Recine
A medical worker carries out coronavirus tests in the UK. REUTERS/Carl Recine

England's decision to discharge 25,000 people from hospitals to care homes at the start of the coronavirus outbreak has been described as “reckless”.

A parliamentary report published on Wednesday heavily criticised the government for its “appalling policy error”, saying that staff in the homes were “thrown to the wolves”.

The plan to free up hospital beds came at a time when people working on the front line in care homes had not been given protective equipment and the failure to test people being sent there led to the spread of the virus to staff and residents.

It was an example of the "slow, inconsistent and at times negligent" approach to social care, the cross-party Public Accounts Committee said.

Thousands of care home residents, who are among the most vulnerable to Covid-19, have died during the pandemic.

According to the report, health officials in England continued to implement the policy even when it became clear that there was an emerging problem.

The government must use the narrow window we have now to plan for a second wave

“The failure to provide adequate PPE or testing to the millions of staff and volunteers who risked their lives to help us through the first peak of the crisis is a sad, low moment in our national response,” MP Meg Hillier, the chair of the committee, said. “Our care homes were effectively thrown to the wolves, and the virus has ravaged some of them.

“Vulnerable people surviving the first wave have been isolated for months, in the absence of a functional tracing and containment system. Yet there were bold and ambitious claims made by ministers about the roll-out of test, track and trace that don’t match the reality.

“The deaths of people in care homes devastated many, many families. They and we don’t have time for promises and slogans, or exercises in blame. We weren’t prepared for the first wave. Putting all else aside, the government must use the narrow window we have now to plan for a second wave. Lives depend upon getting our response right.”

After initially saying that a negative coronavirus result was not required before the discharge of patients, the government later backtracked and now all patients are tested first.

The committee said that, by September, the government should review which English care homes received discharged patients, and how many went on to have outbreaks.

The government’s approach to social care amid the coronavirus pandemic had exposed the tragic impact of “years of inattention, funding cuts and delayed reforms”, leaving the sector as a “poor relation” that had suffered badly in the pandemic, the report said.

“Thanks to the commitment of thousands of staff and volunteers and by postponing a large amount of planned work, the [National Health Service] was – just – able to weather the severe and immense challenges to health and social care services in England and meet overall demand for Covid-19 treatment during the pandemic’s April peak – unfortunately, it has been a very different story for adult social care.”

UK opposition leader Keir Starmer talks with care home workers in Nottingham, central England. Getty Images
UK opposition leader Keir Starmer talks with care home workers in Nottingham, central England. Getty Images

The committee is demanding that the government now issues a three-point plan by September, ahead of a potential second wave, covering health, the economy and procurement of medical supplies and equipment.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it had been working closely with the sector and public health experts to develop guidance throughout the "unprecedented global pandemic".

Updated: July 29, 2020 04:46 PM

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