Promises are not enough
“This week, we learned that ministers were warned by scientific advisers in January that care homes would be especially vulnerable to a pandemic. ….
The proper provision of PPE for care workers must be made an absolute priority for the government. Access to increased testing capacity, which remains haphazard and sketchy, must be vastly improved…….”
Boris Johnson has a talent for arresting phrase-making, and it was duly deployed outside Downing Street as he returned to active duty. Comparing Covid-19 to a street mugger, the prime minister said that as a result of ongoing lockdown measures, the country has begun to “wrestle it to the floor”, as recorded infection rates and NHS hospital deaths from the disease fall from their early April peaks.
Not for the first time in his career, Mr Johnson’s rhetoric was vivid, but it expressed at best a partial truth. Barely 24 hours later, the Office for National Statistics published an estimate by the Care Quality Commission that 4,334 people died from coronavirus in care homes in the fortnight leading up to 24 April.
Half of those CQC-reported deaths occurred within the final five days. As the curve of hospital deaths flattens and begins to descend, Westminster’s political energies have moved restlessly on to the question of how lockdown restrictions might be eased. But care workers are bracing for a deadly peak that has yet to come.
The struggle to protect the nation’s vulnerable and elderly must not be fought in lonely isolation, out of sync with the national mood. At the Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, claimed that the potential crisis in care homes “was something we focused on right from the start”. But that social care became the forgotten frontline of the coronavirus crisis is generally accepted.
This week, we learned that ministers were warned by scientific advisers in January that care homes would be especially vulnerable to a pandemic. From personal protective equipment to testing, the response from the government to that advice was belated and inadequate. What is urgently needed now is the application of genuine political imagination to mitigate a tragic situation which is moving towards a deadly climax. Care homes need immediate help in three specific areas – medical equipment, human resources and financial capability.
The proper provision of PPE for care workers must be made an absolute priority for the government. Access to increased testing capacity, which remains haphazard and sketchy, must be vastly improved. Mr Hancock has announced that care homes will now be able to test asymptomatic as well as symptomatic carers and residents. This is welcome, as is the commitment to publish daily figures on care home deaths. But when some care homes are still struggling to perform any tests at all, the promise doesn’t count for much.
The National Care Forum, which represents 120 not-for-profit providers, has called for acute care specialists and geriatricians normally based in the NHS to lend their expertise in managing outbreaks. Their knowledge, and the experience they acquired during the early April hospital peak, could be an invaluable resource.
About 25,000 retired doctors and nurses responded to government calls to return to the NHS; their skills would be a vital boost in residential homes. Members of the 750,000-strong NHS “volunteer army”, most of whom have not been called on, could be diverted to perform specific tasks. Meanwhile, a financial lifeline from central government is also desperately needed: myriad extra costs have left large numbers of providers close to the edge.
The NHS has not been overwhelmed by the pandemic. Mr Johnson was right to celebrate that fact as he returned to Downing Street. The belated lockdown gave hospitals the headroom they needed. The same sense of urgency must finally inform the government’s response to the crisis in our care homes.