Care homes ‘thrown to the wolves’, says PAC chair

Meg Hillier MP, Public Accounts Committee chair

Cross-party MPs have accused the government of being ‘slow, inconsistent, and at times negligent’ towards social care during the Covid-19 pandemic.

MPs sitting on the Public Accounts Committee said years of ‘inattention, funding cuts and delayed reforms’ had been compounded by the government’s response to coronavirus, which had left the sector as a ‘poor relation’ to the NHS.

The committee’s 23-page report said this was illustrated by an ‘appalling error’ when 25,000 patients were discharged from hospitals into care homes without ensuring all were tested for Covid-19 – even after there was clear evidence of asymptomatic transmission of the virus.

Between 9 March and 17 May, around 5,900 care homes in England (38%), reported at least one outbreak of the disease. Latest official figures showed there were 15,216 deaths involving Covid-19 in care homes in England and Wales up to 17 July, accounting for 29.7% of all coronavirus fatalities.

Failure to protect staff had hit morale and confidence, while a lack of timely testing led to increased stress and absence among workers, the committee said.

‘Reflecting on the government’s response to the pandemic so far, we are also particularly concerned by its failure to provide adequate PPE for the social care sector and testing to the millions of staff and volunteers who risked their lives to help us through the first peak of the crisis,’ the document said.

The MPs said the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) ‘leads a fragmented system’ of adult social care, with responsibilities spread between itself, local government and care providers.

The report, Readying the NHS and social care for the Covid-19 peak, urged the government to reflect and acknowledge its mistakes.

Meg Hillier MP, committee chair, 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.

‘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 committee has demanded information from DHSC on which care homes received discharged patients and how many subsequently had outbreaks; what it expects to do organisationally, legislatively and financially to make sure the needs of social care carry as much weight as those of the NHS; assess the capacity it needs, particularly for PPE and testing, and how it will meet this, to cope with a second peak; and plan how it will monitor and provide support to staff through to the end of the pandemic.

A DHSC spokesperson 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 £1.3bn 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.’

Professor Martin Green, Care England chief executive, urged the government to implement the recommendations. He said: ‘Health and social care are but two sides of the same coin and cannot be treated as separate entities.’

Vic Rayner, National Care Forum executive director, added: ‘The importance of the PAC report, and learning from other government committees is that it emphasises in the face of further outbreaks that both local and national government must never again view social care as an afterthought to health.’