The coronavirus is spreading through care homes again, according to leaked documents that show the government is failing to protect the most vulnerable from the spiralling number of cases.
Gabriel Pogrund, Tom Calver and Rosamund Urwin www.thetimes.co.uk
A Department of Health report marked “official sensitive” and circulated on Friday stated that the rate of the coronavirus recorded through satellite tests — almost all of which take place in care homes — had quadrupled since the start of the month. It now stands at an estimated 1,100 new cases every day.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, took an emergency update on Wednesday saying that outbreaks had been detected in 43 care homes after months of calm.
On Friday night he wrote to care home leaders to confirm that the virus had reappeared: “The infections are mainly affecting the workforce but clearly there is a risk the virus will spread to residents or to other parts of the care sector.
“Unfortunately, in some care homes, with recent outbreaks, this does appear to have occurred, with residents also becoming infected.”
A memo sent to the health secretary’s team lists care homes in Bristol, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire and Wolverhampton as among the worst hit.
At the start of the pandemic the decision to move hospital patients into care homes, often without testing, contributed to 20,000 Covid-related deaths.
To prevent another outbreak, the government promised weekly testing for staff and monthly tests for care home residents in July. It reached the target only last week.
The majority (52%) of Covid-19 tests carried out by care homes take more than 72 hours to be processed.
In his message to care homes, Hancock ended with a warning about the potential dangers as winter approaches: “This winter will place unique pressures on the health and care system. Covid-19 will be circulating with seasonal flu and other viruses and transmission may increase.”
On the same day, scientists at Imperial College London warned that the R infection rate had reached 1.7 — meaning that cases were doubling each week.
Last week care homes in Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland shut their doors to visitors because of early signs that the virus was returning.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Failures over tracing and isolation now mean infections are rising. Failure to protect care homes early on meant many lost their lives. It would be unforgivable if the same mistakes were made again.”
A health department source said: “We have been doing everything we can to ensure care home residents and staff are protected, including testing all residents and staff; provided 200 million items of protective equipment, ring-fenced £600m to prevent infections in care homes and made a further £3.7bn available to councils to address pandemic pressures.”