Care Homes: Lack of protective equipment, no routine tests and local death toll unclear

Katherine Johnston (15 April, 2020)

'Care workers and other health professionals have raised the alarm about being expected to work without PPE or reusing it' - Bermondsey MP Neil Coyle

35678Image: Tower Bridge care home (c) Google Map

Carers are struggling to get personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing is still not routinely available across Southwark, as it emerges the true number to die from COVID-19 is far higher than reported.

A government change of tack last week, which appeared to imply frontline health and social care workers were being wasteful with PPE and needed to treat it as a ‘precious’ resource – including reusing some items –  has also dismayed Southwark MPs.

A spokesperson for provider London Care told the News that although it had finally received the 300 face masks initially promised by the government, it still had no indication of how many more items were coming and by when: “The mid to long-term outlook is therefore uncertain and we continue to have serious doubts that the overall supply nationwide will be sufficient to meet the continuing PPE requirements of the social care sector, including both home care and residential care.”

The 300 masks were part of a blanket delivery to every provider in the country, regardless of the size of their operation.  It has since emerged that the government did not include sheltered housing in their calculations.  Bermondsey MP Neil Coyle warned that every care home he had been in touch with had struggled with its PPE supply: “Care workers and other health professionals have raised the alarm about being expected to work without PPE or reusing it,” he said.

Dulwich and West Norwood MP Helen Hayes, who co-chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on adult social care, said care homes were still having to procure their own PPE but were beset by cancellations or sharp rises in cost.  Some orders had also been diverted to the NHS and one organisation in her constituency had come very close to completely running out.

Hayes has written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, asking him to pledge that all care staff with symptoms who need to self-isolate are guaranteed full sick pay, but has so far received no response.  The problems are only compounded by limited testing and a lack of clarity on the number of deaths within the care sector.

Routine testing is still not available in any Southwark homes. As the News has reported, Tower Bridge Care Home (pictured) has had a spate of cases among residents and staff but, like many homes, has been asked to continue taking on new residents moved out of hospital.

This week HoC, which runs the home, said it had all the PPE it needed – including gowns – and confirmed some of its residents had been tested for COVID-19: “We have taken some hospital admissions at Tower Bridge and we are closely following the government’s guidance to make sure we do this safely,” a spokesperson said.

Anchor Hanover, another key provider in the borough, said it had ‘excellent’ support from Southwark Council in accessing PPE but also had been unable to test residents or staff.

Southwark Council leader Peter John said care homes across south-east London were not overwhelmed as they still had a sixteen per cent capacity at the beginning of week.  The influx of hospital patients had not been as high as expected but other challenges remained.  “There’s significant shortages of care staff across London because they are underpaid and overworked, doing some really difficult jobs,” he said, adding: “And, on top of their usual care, they’re asked to protect people who might be going down with Covid. They are below the NHS in terms of supplies of PPE.”

This week medical adviser Professor Chris Whitty said 13.5 per cent of care homes across the UK had reported an outbreak of COVID-19, with 92 homes within a 24-hour period affected.   Although the government publishes hospital deaths daily, COVID-19 deaths in care homes or the wider community are reported weeks later meaning, at the time of going to press, the News only had figures up until April 3.

These show that by the same date a total of 217 people in England and Wales had died in care homes. Another 136 passed away in their own home, and 33 in hospices.  But none of these deaths were included in the daily Coronavirus fatality figures.  It is now believed daily death statistics could be under-reported by around 50 per cent.

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