Relatives of care home residents will be treated as key workers and get tested for Covid-19 weekly to enable safe visits as part of a new trial.
Health minister Helen Whately today told MPs a pilot scheme would be launched ‘shortly’ to see if the strategy would work. In a meeting with MPs today, she said she wants to enable visiting ‘but it must be safe’.
Dozens of care homes have already shuttered their doors to visitors in the face of a ‘second wave’ of Covid-19, sparking fears elderly residents will be left without any company once again. Care home visits were completely banned across the UK at the height of the pandemic.
Campaigners have been calling for a designated relative to be given ‘key worker’ status and regularly tested for the coronavirus to make visits safer, amid concerns for residents who are deteriorating in isolation.
Ms Whately today revealed ministers have caved into demands, telling the Science and Technology and Health and Social Care committees Number 10 was ‘moving forward’ on plans to grant relatives the key worker status so they can get regularly tested and receive PPE.
Tens of thousands of vulnerable care home residents died from the coronavirus in Britain’s first wave of the pandemic in the spring.
This was partially blamed on agency staff moving between care homes, and homes being pressured to take in elderly patients who were discharged from hospitals without proof they did not have Covid-19.
Ms Whately said changes had been made to avoid either of these happening again this winter and insisted the guidance always said patients being discharged from hospitals should be quarantined for 14 days.
And in a stark warning of the dangers the sector faces as the disease continues to rebound, Ms Whately claimed care homes could not have been protected from the disease. She argued evidence from around the world shows no country with large outbreaks has managed to protect their most vulnerable residents.
Workers in the care sector invited to give evidence in the same briefing this morning warned of a lack of access to PPE and speedy tests, which scientists say are crucial to containing the virus.
Theresa Steed, the manager of Tunbridge Wells Care Centre, said she welcomed any scheme that allowed relatives to see loved ones. But she said tests are ‘only as good as the day they are issued’ and that her staff had experienced delays in test results of more than a week.
And Jane Townson, chief executive, UK Homecare Association, said there was ‘not enough PPE supplies behind the scenes’.
Urgent calls for relatives of care home residents to be treated as key workers and be tested weekly to enable safe visits has led to the launch of a pilot scheme. The Health Minister Helen Whately, pictured today at the joint Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee meeting, said a trial will launched ‘shortly’
Campaigners have been calling for a designated relative to be given ‘key worker’ status and regularly tested for the coronavirus to make visits safer (stock)
Committee chairman Jeremy Hunt questioned Ms Whately on the idea of a named ‘key worker’ relative this morning.
She said: ‘To the point of treating a care worker as a key worker, and therefore them being trained to wear PPE and be tested, I am planning for us to launch a pilot on that shortly.
‘I can’t give a date, but I can say we are moving forward with it and we are piloting it.’
Ms Whately previously said in the House of Commons she was ‘very sympathetic to the idea of a named relative being treated as a key worker and being tested on a regular basis so they can carry on visiting a loved one’, according to Mr Hunt.
Although Ms Whately said it was important for care home residents to start seeing their families again, she admitted she was concerned about the risks.
She said: ‘Visiting is incredibly important for residents and their families in care homes, I really want us to enable visiting but it must be safe.
‘I think you have to recognise that should a visitor take Covid in, they are not just endangering the individual visiting, but actually it’s very hard to control Covid within a residential setting. So it’s not as simple as an agreement between resident and visitor.’
A ban on care home visits were lifted in the summer. But there are still obstacles for families to see each other.
Theresa Steed, the manager of Tunbridge Wells Care Centre, said her home was now offering half-hour visitor slots to be booked in advance.
She said: ‘We’ve opened up and they’ve tried to book a whole week of visits, but we have to limit that because we’ve also got to try and fit other people in. And that’s hard to say to somebody you can have that one.’
She added: ‘We do Zoom, WhatsApp. But for somebody with dementia, looking at WhatsApp on a tablet, it’s like looking at a picture but it’s actually moving, but it’s not like seeing your loved one. It’s not like getting a hug, or a kiss.’
Asked by MP for Sevenoaks, Laura Trott, if she would support a named-relative scheme, Ms Steed said she would support anything that allows visits.
However, she said: ‘That’s something I would support, but the test is only as good as the day it is issued.’
Ms Steed said her staff were being tested weekly, but she had experienced delays in getting test results returned, essentially voiding the result.
It comes as MailOnline’s analysis today revealed half of people taking Covid-19 tests in England have to wait at least 48 hours for their result, despite Boris Johnson’s pledge to turn all swabs around within a day by the start of July.
One male staff member tested positive for Covid-19 in September, nine days after he had been tested. In that time, he worked in the home without showing any of the tell-tale symptoms.
Other social care experts have shared concerns about being able to access personal protective equipment (PPE), and about the test and trace system.
If there are not enough supplies of PPE for relatives, and the testing and trace system is not working efficiently — as SAGE warned in documents released last night, the named-relative scheme is set to fail.
Ms Townson, chief executive, UK Homecare Association, said: ‘Providers are unable to access the quantities [of PPE] that we are told they should be able to order through the portal, because there just aren’t enough supplies behind the scenes.
‘So that really needs to be addressed, because the PPE is, at the moment, the major additional cost apart from staffing.’
Asked if she has confidence in the Government’s test and trace system, she replied: ‘Unfortunately not.’
Kathy Roberts, chairwoman of the Care Providers Alliance, echoed concerns over NHS Test and Trace, adding: ‘No, I think testing has still got quite a way to go.’
The care minister was questioned during the first joint inquiry hearing into the impact of coronavirus on the social care sector, and what lessons have been learned.
In a chilling admission, Ms Whately suggested it would not have been possible to ever save care homes from the coronavirus devastation because transmission in Britain was already high.
She said looking at countries internationally, ‘the most common factor when there have been many deaths in care homes, has been the extent of community transmission’.
‘When you have widespread transmission in the community, it is really hard to keep it out of care homes,’ she said.
She added: ‘I think that is a really important point and timely right now when there has been some debate about the level of restrictions that should be in place, and suggestions that you could essentially mothball those that are more vulnerable.
‘But what we know and other countries have seen is that but care homes are essentially part of your community.
‘It is not clear that where countries have been very strict on banning visitors, they have necessarily had fewer deaths in care homes.
‘For instance, Spain introduced a very early ban on visiting but actually had a huge problem in their care comes.’
Moving forward into the winter, Ms Whately said that as of September, staff must now only work in one setting in an effort to reduce the spread of infection.
Agency staff who fill the gaps of staff shortages were pinpointed as a driver of Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes because they were able to take the coronavirus from one home into another.
Ms Whately told MPs it has now been ‘mandated’ and no longer just guidance for agency staff to stick to one site.
‘We have gone from guidance position to now saying this must be the case, and this is again supported by the second round of the infection control fund recognising the extra costs,’ She told the committee.
Mr Hunt grilled Ms Whately on why this was not the case before, considering countries like Canada and Israel banned agency workers at the start of the pandemic, to which Ms Whately raised concerns of staff shortages.
She said: ‘There was a great concern if you did an outright and immediate ban, you might have care homes that simply didn’t have enough staff to look after their residents.
‘We did see early in the pandemic, I remember looking at other countries like Spain for instance which was ahead of the curve on the rates, you had people dying in care homes because staff had just walked away. And the military were finding abandoned care homes.
‘We did not want to see anybody suffer from neglect in that way. We had to make sure there was sufficient staff to look after people.’