Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure to speed up the Covid vaccine rollout to care homes, after damning official figures showed care homes were once again at the heart of Britain’s crisis.
Some 1,260 care home residents died from Covid in England last week, almost twice the 661 fatalities recorded in the last week of 2020. The virus is now responsible for a startling 40 per cent of all deaths in care homes.
Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow social care minister, warned the UK is ‘in a race against time to vaccinate residents and staff’ to stop the disease from ripping through the sector. She said: ‘The Government must leave no stone unturned to deliver on its promise to complete care home vaccinations by this Sunday in every part of the country.’
Sir Patrick Vallance, No10’s chief scientific adviser, today warned that it is ‘not safe’ for people to visit care homes, even if their loved ones had received two doses of the vaccine. He told Sky News: ‘We have to stick to the rules to get the levels down.’
Experts say there is ‘always a risk’ of the virus getting into homes via care staff if the disease is spreading at high levels in the community even if workers are being regularly tested. There have been concerns over the accuracy of the rapid tests being used in care homes.
There are also questions over whether the spike in cases and deaths is linked to the Government’s controversial policy to send Covid patients discharged from hospitals back into care homes. Under the scheme, designed to free up hospital beds and protect the NHS, care homes which passed inspection and were deemed Covid-secure were once again asked to house infected patients.
Human rights group Amnesty International told MailOnline discharging infected hospital patients into care homes was like ‘throwing a match into a haystack’. The group said the sceheme was fuelling the crisis in the sector.
Public Inquiry specialist Kim Harrison, from law firm Slater and Gordon, told MailOnline today it was ‘unforgivable’ to house Covid patients among the people most vulnerable to the disease. She added: ‘The government seems to be repeating the same catastrophic policy errors it committed when the pandemic hit last year.
‘Discharging potentially Covid-positive patients into the most vulnerable population is thought to have contributed to the steep death toll in March last year. So it is unforgivable do it again, knowing that it will almost certainly cost many lives.’
The Prime Minister has vowed that all 420,000 care home residents will receive a jab by the end of the month, a week later than the NHS target of January 24. Yet seven weeks into the rollout, just half of the country’s care home residents have been vaccinated — despite being at the front of the queue.
More than 20,000 care home residents died from Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic and experts say the decision to discharge thousands of untested hospital patients into care homes in spring was partly to blame. MPs accused ministers of throwing care homes ‘to the wolves’.
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report found 1,260 care home residents died to the virus in the week ending January 15, almost twice the 661 fatalities two weeks ago
Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow social care minister, warned the UK is ‘in a race against time to vaccinate residents and staff’
What are the current rules for visiting care homes?
Care homes across the UK are still offering outdoor visiting and ‘screened’ visits during the lockdown.
Government guidance says these should always be an option because visits are ‘crucially important for maintaining health and wellbeing and quality of life for residents’.
As well as maintaining social distance, visitors have to adhere to hand hygiene protocols and in some cases wear personal protective equipment (PPE) including aprons, masks and gloves.
However, care homes can cancel outdoor and screened visits if there is an outbreak in the facility.
Families are only allowed in-person visits in exceptional circumstances, including seeing dying relatives.
This should continue even in the event of clusters within the homes, Number 10 says.
Relatives coming for in-person visits must be tested using rapid lateral flow devices, which give a result within half an hour.
Only after a negative result can the visit continue.
Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty, told MailOnline: ‘The decision to send patients back to care homes when they were still infected never stopped throughout the summer.
‘Obviously it was much smaller issue over summer because infection numbers were much smaller but now numbers are huge overall in the community.
‘The extent to which testing has been increased for we don’t know. We don’t know if they are being tested enough.
‘What we do know is that families are not allowed direct contact with residents, and residents are not allowed out – yet the virus is coming into the homes somehow.
‘I don’t want to speculate, I’m an investigator and I work with facts. The fact is lots of people are dying in care homes, so the virus is getting in somehow. It can only be getting in from people coming from places where the virus is prevalent, so either hospitals or staffers.
‘They need to make sure nobody still infected is sent back into care homes. The other thing is to test workers as much as needed.
Ms Harrison, from Slater and Gordon, added: ‘Many elderly people are extremely concerned about coronavirus and have taken great care not to be exposed.
‘They’ve gone without so much – missing out on family contact, relationships and more – during this time. It would be heart-breaking if that were all put in jeopardy by an ill-judge calculation by the government to alleviate pressure elsewhere in the system.
‘It’s now more important than ever the government’s handling of coronavirus is subject to a public inquiry. Without proper oversight, people will increasingly lose faith in the government.’
But some experts say there was always going to be more care home deaths when the crisis in the community was allowed to spiral the way it has.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘High community transmission means there’s always a risk of the virus getting into care homes.
‘Care homes are part of the community, its staff are living in the community and we can’t expect them to not go out themselves and see their families. They can bring in infection.’
Professor Hunter said the policy of discharging hospital patients into care homes was not inherently dangerous.
He added: ‘Certainly, if it’s not managed properly, then discharged patients may bring in infection. But, if you’ve got properly trained care workers and you have the resources to manage infected patients then it’s safe. If your staff aren’t trained properly and you don’t have adequate facilities then it’s very difficult.’
Furious families have hit out at the decision to start offering the vaccine to over-70s when hundreds of thousands of over-80s and 90s have yet to get theirs – resulting in many contracting the deadly virus.
Joanna Henwood, from Maidenhead, Berkshire, said her 96-year-old father has now been hospitalised with coronavirus while waiting to receive the jab at his Devon care home.
Bill Lewis was rushed to hospital on Saturday after half of the staff and residents at Hembury Fort House in Honiton, near Exeter were struck down by the virus following an outbreak on January 4.
The grandfather-of-six is now being treated at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital after testing positive.
Mrs Henwood, a classical singer, 48, said her family had asked the local doctor’s surgery when residents would get the vaccine but felt they were fobbed off.
She told the Mail: ‘I feel like he’s been totally let down and the GPs could have acted much more swiftly to vaccinate residents.
‘We’re just taking it day by day at the minute. We just have to hope he gets better but we’re obviously very worried.
‘The care home has done everything it could possibly do to keep the virus out – and was successful for a year – but has been let down by doctors being too slow to go in.
‘Now we’re hearing about over-70s getting jabs – it’s as if they’ve decided that the oldest and most vulnerable aren’t worth it anymore and have given up on them. These are the people who should be our number one priority.’ Ministers insist the vaccine rollout is on track, with Matt Hancock moving to reassure over-80s who are still waiting for an invitation that they will be contacted in the next four weeks.
Public Health England has also recorded a spike in the number of suspected Covid-19 outbreaks reported in care homes. But it said many of these are be false alarms, although it couldn’t say what number turned out not to involve the virus
Ministers have been slammed by furious families and charities for failing to vaccinate care home residents despite the immunisation programme launching six weeks ago and already being expanded to over-70s
But questions have been raised over why Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Slough in Berkshire have been able to vaccinate all their care home residents while vaccinations in some areas are as low as 10 per cent.
Nadra Ahmed, of the National Care Association, said it was ‘worrying’ that Covid deaths in care homes were rising again, adding that the vaccine rollout has been ‘slower than we would have anticipated.’ She said news the Government was expanding the programme to include over-70s had only ‘increased anxieties’ within the sector, with many providers still waiting for confirmation of when a GP will visit.
She said: ‘We’ve had lots of worried calls from providers who think they’ve been forgotten.
‘When you have care homes in areas where transmission is very high and staff are living in these communities, it is a massive point of anxiety.
‘So if you’re then looking at the vaccine as being your Saviour and it’s not coming, you can see why people are really concerned.
‘I think the worse thing is that we’ve got providers saying ‘we’ve kept this virus out all year and now we’ve got it while waiting for vaccines.’
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics yesterday show the number of care home deaths linked to coronavirus has now reached 25,000.
Some 21,621 deaths in care homes in England and Wales had been registered up to January 8, along with 2,768 in Scotland and 619 in Northern Ireland, with coronavirus on the death certificate.
The ONS figures show that more than a quarter of all care home deaths in England and Wales registered in the week ending January 8 involved coronavirus – 960 out of 3,395 – a 71 per cent rise in a week (from 560). There were 1,260 deaths involving Covid-19 in care homes notified to the Care Quality Commission in the week ending January 15, a 45 per cent rise from the 864 deaths notified during the previous week and almost double the 661 deaths notified to the regulator in the week ending January 1.
Tanya Shukla, who runs Hyperion House in Gloucestershire, said she had been pushing for her residents and staff to receive the vaccine from the start of December.
But, before they could access the life-saving jabs, the home suffered its first outbreak on 18 December when six staff members tested positive.
After the infection tore through the staff members, the residents had to be evacuated to other homes after as there were not enough carers well enough to look after them.
At least ten of the residents died after they left the home.
‘It’s been absolutely horrific’, said manager Natalya James.
‘In care homes the spread is like nowhere else – especially with the new strain – you only need one or two of infections in the building.
‘It was completely unstoppable. We went over and above government guidance and we were still overwhelmed.’ David Steedman (pics) the owner of Arlington House care home in East Sussex said none of the home’s 24 residents have received the vital jabs. He hopes they may have it sometime next week.
The home is currently dealing with its first outbreak after managing to keep the virus at bay since the start of the pandemic.
He said: ‘We’ve had to put pressure on and almost ring daily. The ones who haven’t been proactive will be left to the wayside…
‘The GP told us either Tuesday or Thursday – well it’s clearly not going to be today and we haven’t had any guidance on whether Thursday will go ahead.
‘There’s no leadership, nobody knows what’s going on. The only good news is our care home resident who is 101 has recovered from Covid.’
NHS England has told GPs that it ‘expects’ care home residents and staff at homes across England to be vaccinated by January 24 ‘at the latest’, offering incentives of up to £30 per jab.
But the Government appears to have rolled back the target by a week, suggesting they will be reached by the end of January.
Liz Kendall MP, Labour’s shadow social care minister, said it was clear ‘we are in a race against time to vaccinate residents and staff’.
She said: ‘The Government must leave no stone unturned to deliver on its promise to complete care home vaccinations by this Sunday in every part of the country.
‘Ministers must also guarantee no one will be discharged from hospitals to care homes without an up to date Covid-19 test and instead of pressurising homes to take Covid-19 positive patients they should be setting up a network of intermediate ‘step down’ facilities instead.’ Fiona Carragher, of the Alzheimer’s Society, said care home residents need vaccinating as ‘swiftly as possible’.
She said: ‘We mustn’t forget that people with dementia – at least 70 per cent of care home residents – have been worst hit by coronavirus, with thousands dying and many more rapidly deteriorating, from both the virus and knock-on effect of lockdown.
‘Care home residents have been tragically cut off from their loved ones for almost a year, with families desperately worried about their fast decline.
‘They have lost precious time with those they care about most, and with their health deteriorating day by day, some just giving up on life, we need clarity about when we can expect indoor close-contact visits to start happening again.’ A NHS England spokesman said: ‘Thanks to the dedication of NHS staff, tens of thousands of care home residents and staff have already been vaccinated with the NHS working hard to vaccinate as many people from these top priority groups as quickly as possible.’ Ends