‘Perfect storm’ of Covid and staff shortages leaves care homes unable to take hospital discharges

A “perfect storm” of Covid and staff shortages has left social care unable to take a surge of patients, it has been warned.

Rebecca Thomas www.independent.co.uk

Care home leaders said residential homes may not be able to handle the usual influx of patients from hospitals during the Easter bank holiday weekend as “chronic” shortages, which hit a high in March, force providers to close beds.

Recent data published by Skills for Care showed vacancy rates across care services hit 10 per cent in March 2022, compared to 5.9 per cent in 2021.

The figures, commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, represent the highest level recorded since the beginning of last year.

It comes as figures published on Thursday revealed A&E waits and ambulance delays in March were the worst they’ve ever been.

More than 390,000 people with potentially life-threatening conditions, including suspected strokes, waited more than an hour for an ambulance.

One in 10 patients waited more than two hours for an ambulance which should come within 18 minutes.

According to a letter, reported by The Health Service Journal, hospital trusts were warned of escalating pressures in the northwest and were told 1,700 care home beds locally had been closed due to staffing and Covid pressures.

In an interview with The Independent, Martin Green, chief executive for Care England, said his members were reporting “chronic staff shortages” made worse by more workers testing positive for Omicron in rent weeks.

He said care homes have not been able to deal with the influx of patients from hospitals which usually occurs ahead of a bank holiday.

Mr Green explained: “Hospitals make a decision to empty themselves, whether it be the bank holidays, Christmas, and that at a time when it’s also difficult for us to maintain staffing levels.

“Occupancy levels are much, much lower than they would be normally – they’re hovering around about 88 to 90 per cent but would normally be in the high 90s, which has had an impact on the viability of homes. Some not only reduced the number of beds that they’re opening, because of issues around Omicron because they cannot get the staff.”

He said one care home in Buckinghamshire recently had to reduce its capacity by 10 beds due to staffing problems.

In addition to staff absences, the Care England chief said current legislation is forcing homes to implement certain infection control measures which are leading to less beds and is costing homes up to £1m.

Councillor Louise Gittins said in an interview with The Independent that social care was already suffering from “massive” staffing shortages as recruitment was becoming more difficult, with one provider losing 100 staff since December.

She said the bank holiday will worsen these pressures, adding: “What will happen with the bank holiday, it will put pressures on things such as pharmacies not necessarily being open and where people aren’t about because of the bank holiday.

“It feels like the perfect storm at the moment. We’ve got high Covid rates, which is putting pressures on staff, in terms of absences.”

Responding to the NHS performance figures on Thursday, Chris Hopson, chief executive for NHS Providers, said hospitals were dealing with the “most sustained difficult and pressured period of time they can remember”.

He said: “We need to be honest about the four long-term fault lines which have built up over the last decade, exacerbated by Covid. Between 2010 and 2020, the NHS went through the longest and deepest financial squeeze in its history.

“It was therefore unable to grow capacity to match growing demand, leaving a significant capacity shortfall.

“Huge workforce shortages have built up, with 110,000 vacancies and only 27 per cent of staff saying their organisation has sufficient staff to do their job properly. And the government has consistently failed to solve problems in social care.

“Until these fault lines are properly addressed, the NHS is going to remain under real pressure.”