Care homes an ‘afterthought’ in coronavirus pandemic, says Norfolk social care boss
- Credit: PA
The “devastating” impact of coronavirus on older people in care homes and those getting care at home could have been avoided had it not been considered an “afterthought” by the government, the director of adult social care in the county has said.
And, as a sobering survey was published, highlighting how thousands of people have died prematurely, James Bullion, Norfolk County Council’s adult social care director said the government must never again leave social care exposed to a pandemic.
Provisional figures from the Care Quality Commission show there were 124 deaths of people with coronavirus in Norfolk’s care homes and 166 in Suffolk, between April 10 to June 5. They were among 11,614 deaths nationally during that period.
And the report put together by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), of which Mr Bullion is president, revealed almost a quarter of adult social care chiefs thought more than half of care home COVID-19 infections happened because people had been rapidly discharged into them from hospitals.
More than half believed people had gone from hospitals into care homes without having been tested for coronavirus, while a quarter said people were being discharged into care homes lacking sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE).
The report said: “Given what we know about the spread of COVID-19 in care home settings in particular, it is obviously greatly concerning that untested individuals were potentially discharged to settings that had insufficient PPE and also to where a suspected Covid-19 positive individual could not isolate safely.”
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Mr Bullion said: “It is clear that adult social care was rendered ill-equipped and under-resourced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic by the failure of successive governments, of all political colours, to recognise and understand how essential social care is and to put the people who need and work in it at the forefront.
“A key lesson is that a pandemic response that focussed on emptying acute hospital beds without considering the impact on social care had huge consequences; prioritising PPE and testing for hospitals, with social care as an afterthought, was not right.
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“A focus on rapid discharge when there were shortages of PPE, questions about testing and the ability to isolate people in social care meant that some people ended up in the wrong place to meet their needs and with insufficient community support or reablement to help them get home.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock said last month that a “protective ring” had been thrown around care homes and that ministers had done everything to protect them.
But Mr Bullion said: “The government must ensure that social care is never again left exposed to a pandemic. This starts by protecting those of us with care and support needs from the current and subsequent waves of COVID-19 and extends to ensuring social care is at the centre of all future emergency planning and preparation.
“Whilst the wider population may be moving out of the coronavirus peak, COVID-19 will be with older and disabled people for a very long time.
“Easing the lockdown is about more than opening doors it is about unlocking people’s lives – restoring care and support, assessing needs, preparing for the inevitable surge in demand for care and enabling us all to live our lives again.
“Learning the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, the government must seize the opportunity to reform and reset social care as part of the wider post COVID-19 recovery.”
Lessons must be learned
Daya Thayan, chief executive of Kingsley Healthcare, which is based in Lowestoft, said it was essential that lessons were learned - and that the sector is properly funded in the future.
He said his company had been in a position where it had been able to get PPE, but smaller operators were not so fortunate and a “ridiculous” situation had arisen where operators were effectively bidding against each other to get equipment.
He said: “At the beginning, the government and advisors were caught napping. There wasn’t proper planning or policy applied to the situation. There was a panic and it became reactive.
“Our industry was the forgotten child of the health care system and that’s been the case for some time as the sector has been underfunded.
“What needs to happen is that lessons are learned from this and that is put right. The government did wake up and say they must do something, so there has been a recognition that social care was an important part of the wellbeing of the country.
“We complement and support the NHS, so if the resources were available to us, that would surely make the system work better. We need to prepare for the possible second wave better.
“We need to prepare for the possible second wave and we need a more integrated and well funded social care system which dovetails into the NHS.”
Calls for extra cash to support social care
Bill Borrett, Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for adult social care and public health, said: “Adult social care services in Norfolk have played a crucial role in protecting the most vulnerable people during the pandemic.
“This has included supplying PPE where needed, providing proactive support for care homes and working with the NHS, including launching a step down beds centre at Cawston Lodge, ensuring the safe discharge of COVID-19 patients from hospital.
“One lesson for the government from this emergency is that adult social care is a valued and crucial part of any response and must be involved right from the start.
“I’m encouraged by the health secretary’s comments on the importance of adult social care and hope that we get clearer recognition and involvement – plus the funding required to support our response.”
What the government said
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Social care and its workforce are at the front line of this unprecedented pandemic which has had a devastating effect of many individuals and families. Every death has been a tragedy.
“Adult social care will continue to get all the support and resources they need to tackle the impacts of the pandemic, with £3.2bn for local authorities to help address pressures on local services, including in adult social care, and £600m to control infections in care homes.
“We remain absolutely committed to bringing forward a plan for social care so everybody is treated with dignity and respect, and nobody has to sell their home to pay for care.
“The health secretary has already sought views from across parliament - but this is one of the most complex issues we face, and it is right we take time to develop a fair, sustainable solution.”