The government has announced a package of measures to try and combat the spread of the coronavirus in care homes, amid fears of a “growing crisis” in social care.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said this includes increased testing of residents and staff and improved access to personal protective equipment through a supply network of “unprecedented scale”.
Fears are growing that hundreds of people are dying with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in care homes but not being included in daily government updates.
Britain’s biggest care home operator, C-One, has revealed that two-thirds of its homes have been affected and more than 300 people have died in them.
Care England said there have been thousands of cases and deaths in the homes it represents.
Tests have now been pledged to all who need them in care homes – including staff and residents – with the Care Quality Commission charged with coordinating who will get them and when.
Currently the government’s daily deaths update only includes patients who die after testing positive for the virus in hospital.
In its latest update on Wednesday, the Department of Health said another 761 patients with COVID-19 have died in UK hospitals, taking the total to 12,868.
The health secretary also said that ministers were making “crystal clear” that it is unacceptable for advanced care plans – including do-not-resuscitate orders – to be applied in a blanket manner to any group of people.
In the Q&A at the briefing, the health secretary was asked by Sky’s Nick Martin about reports that care homes are getting “pushback” from hospitals regarding admitting residents – and a subsequent eagerness to discharge them from hospital quickly.
Mr Hancock said Sky’s reporting had “shined a light on an area that often doesn’t get enough attention”, and added: “The decision to admit somebody into hospital must be a clinical decision based on individual circumstances, not a blanket rule.
“On the discharge, of course the best place for people who clinically are able to be discharged is to get them home.
“So of course there’s a policy that when people are clinically ready for discharge, that they should be discharged, that’s the nature of hospitals.
“But it’s got to be made on that individual, clinical diagnosis of what’s best for that individual patient.”
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England’s deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said there was a “huge question” about how to protect care homes where there have not yet been cases of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Mr Hancock said that families with loved ones dying with the coronavirus should be allowed to say a final goodbye to their relatives.
The heath secretary announced “new procedures” so that “wherever possible” close relatives will be given the “chance to say goodbye” to loved ones dying with COVID-19.
He said “wanting to be with someone you love at the end of their life is one of the deepest human instincts”, adding that he wept at reports of 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, from Brixton, south London, dying without a parent at his bedside.
His funeral went ahead without his mother and siblings after two of them developed symptoms.
In a message to Sky News, Ismail’s older sister said: “I’m happy they are going to try and facilitate for families to say goodbye. I think with everything happening so fast it’s hard to accept reality, especially when you don’t see them during their last moments.”
Mr Hancock also announced a “single brand” with a badge for care workers, which he said may help them access similar perks to NHS staff.
“This badge will be a badge of honour in a very real sense, allowing social care staff proudly and publicly to identify themselves, just like NHS staff do with that famous blue and white logo,” the health secretary said.
“I know that many businesses will want to offer the same recognition and benefits as they do wonderfully to the NHS.”
As he spoke the health secretary pointed to a green and white badge spelling out “Care”, but it appears to be a badge that was launched last year.
And Rehana Azam, national officer of the GMB union, said: “Our care workers need more than a badge and a pat on their head to define their precious role in society.
“They need the protective equipment and testing on the front line now to protect their lives.”
Labour’s shadow minister for social care, Liz Kendall, said: “For millions of elderly and disabled people and their families, actions will speak louder than words.”
Cllr Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said the social care sector was playing a “vital role” in the outbreak, with staff facing “huge” every day.
He added that current arrangements for accessing PPE were “not fit for purpose” and said councils will need “access to additional resources to ensure they can continue to support care providers to deliver care and support to older and disabled people in the coming weeks”.
One of the criticisms of government in recent weeks has been around the level of testing – but the health secretary said the UK is now “testing regularly NHS staff across the board” as of last weekend.
He added: “We have started also testing social care staff, 4,100 social care staff have already been referred for tests.”
The government said testing capacity now stands at 19,000 people a day, but only 14,982 tests were carried out in the 24 hours up to 9am on Tuesday.
Matt Hancock suggested at today’s press conference that I was wrong to say there was a target of 25,000 coronavirus tests by mid-April. If I had been given the chance to ask a follow up question, I would have pointed to his department’s press release from March 18. pic.twitter.com/5rMKeEPPQo
— Laura Hughes (@Laura_K_Hughes) April 15, 2020
This falls short of a target to reach 25,000 tests a day by the middle of this month, which the health secretary was questioned about at the news conference.
Mr Hancock denied this deadline existed and said it was originally set for the end of the month before being superseded by the new 100,000 target – despite the 25,000 target being mentioned in one of his own department’s press releases.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, told the same briefing that the COVID-19 death toll may rise later this week, but he thinks the UK is “probably” reaching the peak of the outbreak.