Coronavirus: More than 100 care home inspectors forced to self-isolate as ministers withhold regular testing

Watchdog is about to launch some 500 inspections in six weeks

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More than 100 inspectors at the Care Quality Commission – almost one-tenth of its inspection workforce – have been forced to self-isolate over coronavirus concerns since March.

The watchdog has released the figures as ministers continue to deny its inspection teams regular testing.

The Department of Health and Social Care said inspectors do not get close enough to vulnerable residents to warrant regular testing despite fears they could seed homes with the virus through contact with staff.

During the first wave of the virus it is estimated 16,000 care home residents died from the coronavirus after 25,000 NHS patients were discharged from hospitals.  

The watchdog is about to launch 500 care home inspections over the next six weeks and employs around 1,300 inspectors. While inspectors are being allowed to visit homes, sometimes multiple locations in a day, relatives of residents are unable to visit.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) confirmed to The Independent that since March 225 staff had self-isolated because of concerns they may be at risk of catching the virus. A total of 143 workers reported symptoms of the virus.

Out of the 225 staff, 103 who self-isolated were inspectors. In total, 11 staff at the regulator tested positive for the virus, with six being inspectors.

Labour MP Barbara Keeley said the figures proved why it was now vital inspectors were regularly tested to prevent them taking coronavirus into care homes.

She told The Independent: “On the basis of these numbers, inspectors may be potentially taking infections into care homes. Given the risk Covid-19 poses in care homes, this cannot be allowed to happen.

“It’s just not acceptable that the inspectors are not being tested regularly. The care home manager in my constituency who raised this with me was rightly uncomfortable about letting inspectors in when they hadn’t been tested for Covid-19.

“We can’t guarantee that inspectors won’t come into close contact with either residents or staff, and even at a distance there remains a chance of infection. When we consider this and the amount of time managers must spend with the inspectors, there is clearly a risk if the inspector is asymptomatic that they introduce the virus to the home. There is no protective ring around care homes with an exposure like this.

“It is clear from these numbers that the only way for CQC inspections to resume in a safe manner is for all inspectors to have access to regular Covid-19 testing, even if they are asymptomatic.”

The decision not to test inspectors has also prompted concerns within the social care sector itself where homes are having to decide how they can protect residents.

The CQC’s chief inspector of social care recently told The Independent she would back care homes which refused to admit patients with coronavirus if they did not have the full protective clothing or ability to care for them safely.

Care homes do not have the ability to deny inspectors access to their buildings.

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said he was bemused by ministers’ reluctance to agree to regular testing of inspectors, and urged them to think again.

He said: “Fast, accurate and widespread testing is absolutely essential to protect care home residents, staff and relatives.  As the largest representative body for independent providers of adult social care, Care England is bemused as to why CQC inspectors are not deemed appropriate to have testing and has urged, and will continue to urge, the government to amend its criteria.”

To try to protect care homes from the virus, the NHS and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is planning to establish new “designated discharge” units for patients coming out of hospitals. These will be isolated units away from other care home residents where patients can be in effect quarantined after leaving hospital.

The CQC confirmed it had asked the DHSC to test its inspection teams, but this was denied in September.

The watchdog said it was in regular contact with the DHSC over the issue but added that all its staff would wear protective masks and clothing when on inspections.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson previously said: “Our testing policy is based on scientific advice to limit the spread of Covid-19 and save lives, and prioritises health and care staff who are in direct, personal contact with patients and residents.

“CQC inspectors are not required to make personal contact, however everyone working in care homes, including inspectors, should follow proper infection prevention and control measures including correct use of PPE and handwashing to stop the spread of the virus.”

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