A damning report into the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in care homes has shown that they were ‘effectively thrown to the wolves’.
Discharging thousands of patients into care homes without testing them for coronavirus was a ‘reckless’ and ‘appalling’ policy error, a Commons report argues.
The some 25,000 patients pushed out of hospital wards to free up beds was an example of the government’s ‘slow, inconsistent and at times negligent’ approach to social care, the cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.
It added that it was ‘concerned’ that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had continued with the policy ‘even once it was clear there was an emerging problem’.
Hospitals in England were asked on March 17 to discharge patients, but had not required them to be tested for coronavirus until April 15.
And it was not until the end of April that the government said all care home residents and staff, regardless of symptoms, could access testing.
This is despite Public Health England (PHE) telling the committee it was aware of asymptomatic transmission as early as the end of March.
In evidence on June 22, PHE’s Professor Paul Johnstone said: ‘What was becoming clear in the back-end of March and certainly from the beginning of April was that there was an asymptomatic phase, which means that people can transfer the virus without ever having symptoms, or a significant pre-symptomatic phase, which is where the virus could be shared.’
The DHSC told the committee in the same session it believes the clearest correlations between social care outbreaks related to staff rather than the discharge of hospital patients.
However, it added: ‘That is not the same as saying that we would do the same again.’
The PAC said the government ‘urgently needs to reflect, acknowledge its mistakes, and learn from them’. Testing, it says, should have been made available to hospital patients and social care staff ‘much more quickly’.
And it identified a lack of transparency around the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), with a tendency for the government to ‘overpromise and under deliver’.
Committee chairwoman, MP Meg Hillier, said: ‘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.
‘Our care homes were effectively thrown to the wolves, and the virus has ravaged some of them.’
She added: ‘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, government must use the narrow window we have now to plan for a second wave. Lives depend upon getting our response right.’
The report, Readying the NHS and social care for the Covid-19 peak, is the first parliamentary review of the health and social care response to the crisis.
It slammed NHS England and Improvement over a ‘scarcity of information on contracts and costs’ handed out during the period and said the Nightingale hospitals had been mismanaged and a poor use of public funds.
The PAC has called for the DHSC and NHS to write to the committee by September 1 detailing how private and Nightingale hospitals will be ‘made best use of’ in the coming months.
A DHSC spokesman said: ‘Throughout this unprecedented global pandemic we have been working closely with the sector and public health experts to put in place guidance and support for adult social care.
‘Alongside an extra £1.3 billion to support the hospital discharge process, we have provided 172 million items of PPE to the social care sector since the start of the pandemic and are testing all residents and staff, including repeat testing for staff and residents in care homes for over-65 or those with dementia.
‘We know there is a need for a long-term solution for social care and we will bring forward a plan that puts social care on a sustainable footing to ensure the reforms will last long into the future.’