Coronavirus outbreaks in care homes were “almost unavoidable”, a minster has said as she promised to “ramp up” testing for residents and staff.
Opposition parties have warned of a “growing crisis” in care homes, with elderly residents particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
And there are growing demands for care home deaths to be included in the daily updates for deaths in hospitals to stop “potentially thousands” of fatalities going “under the radar”.
In response to these concerns, the government has pledged that all social care staff who need a test for COVID-19 will be able to access one, as testing capacity continues to increase.
Social care minister Helen Whately defended the delay, saying it was “almost unavoidable” there are virus outbreaks in care homes, which are “used to” infection control because of seasonal flu.
She told Sky News’ Kay Burley@Breakfast 1,000 care workers have been tested and a further 2,000 have been referred for tests.
Pressed on whether the government has acted too slow, she said she had been working “day and night” to make sure we’re “as prepared as we can”.
Ministers have pledged to reach 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month, a target Downing Street insists the UK is on course to meet.
The latest figures show that 14,982 tests were carried out in the 24 hours up to 9am on Tuesday. So far, just 505 social care workers have been tested for the coronavirus.
The Care Quality Commission will coordinate the tests for people and staff working in care – and aims to have contacted all 30,000 care providers by the end of the week.
Care providers will be asked to identify workers eligible for testing and then refer them to their local testing centre.
In addition, all residents of a care home with symptoms of the disease will be tested, rather than the first five who are symptomatic, as is currently the case.
And for those who are discharged from hospital, they will be tested before returning to their care home as a matter of course.
Labour said increased testing in the sector was essential to tackling what was an “emerging crisis”.
Liz Kendall, the party’s shadow minister for social care, said: “We look forward to seeing details of how this latest commitment will be delivered.
“The government has rightly said the NHS will get whatever resources it needs to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. This must also apply to social care, which needs a much greater priority and focus than it has had so far.
“Alongside this, ministers must act to ensure all care home and home care staff get the PPE (personal protective equipment) they need and publish daily figures on deaths outside hospitals, including in care homes, so we know the full scale of the challenge we face.”
The head of Public Health England said on Tuesday that health bodies are “working towards” including coronavirus-related deaths in care homes in the government’s daily figures.
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Professor Yvonne Doyle told the daily COVID-19 news conference that PHE was working with the Office for National Statistics to get faster data on deaths in care homes, hospices, private homes and elsewhere.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the same briefing that care home residents and workers “have absolutely not been forgotten” about by the government.
He stressed the need for data that is “consistent and accurate and timely”.
Asked whether it would be more “respectful” to publish care home deaths along with the hospital deaths, he replied: “There is absolutely no desire not to respect what’s happening in care homes and to provide that data.”
The latest weekly data from the ONS showed around 10% of deaths registered up to 3 April in England and Wales were outside hospitals.
On Wednesday the Liverpool Echo reported eight residents out of 44 have dies at a car home in Crosby after an outbreak of COVID-19 there.
A quarter of all registered deaths involving COVID-19 in Scotland occurred in care homes, according to the National Records of Scotland (NRS).
NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson said: “The spread in care homes has largely gone under the radar because the figures are not released in the same way as the daily statistics for deaths in hospitals.
“If we are to understand the true scale of the spread, the number of deaths in care homes should be released daily in the same way as they are for hospital deaths.”
Sally Copley, director of policy, campaigns and partnerships at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “If the government isn’t counting these deaths, how can it be taking the urgent and necessary action to address them?
“It strikes us that these deaths from coronavirus are the iceberg, and the hospital figures are just the tip.
“The evidence from Europe shows more than 40% of all deaths relating to coronavirus occur in care homes, so our fear is that potentially thousands of UK deaths are being missed from official figures.”