Coronavirus: Warning over lack of social care plans for UK epidemic

‘There is a complete lack of information’ warns Care England boss who says in the event of a widespread outbreak social care could see a ‘lot of deaths’

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 10 March 2020 22:43 GMT
Matt Hancock provides coronavirus update in Parliament

There is no evidence of detailed plans to help nursing homes and care workers to cope in the event of a serious coronavirus outbreak, industry leaders have told The Independent.

In a stark warning Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, a charity which represents care providers, said he feared widespread deaths were inevitable if the virus sweeps the country and he hit out at what he said was the government’s ignorance of social care and its importance.

Experts from the Nuffield Trust think tank have also warned the social care sector is particularly vulnerable to the virus with many frail and elderly patients dependent on care workers who could be forced to stay at home in large numbers.

Professor Green told The Independent that while government and local councils were claiming they had contingency plans many providers were still in the dark over what exactly would be done.

He said: “There is no evidence of a plan. I’m not even certain they have these plans and aren’t just making them up as they go along.”

In the event of a widespread epidemic he added: “We will see a lot of deaths. I think that is probably inevitable.”

Challenged in parliament on Tuesday by Labour’s Barbara Keeley, health secretary Matt Hancock insisted social care was part of the government’s planning but admitted social care “would face a difficult time”.

While generic guidance has been published by Public Health England it appears out of date, claiming there is no evidence of transmission within the UK, despite a total of 373 cases on Tuesday, and no specific guidance on actions to take if large numbers of staff or service users become sick.

Professor Green said he was “irritated” by the Department of Health and Social Care which had gone into “overdrive” about the NHS but barely mentioned social care.

“In every crisis they go into overdrive about the NHS and forget social care. They should take it off their name.”

He said the sector needed detailed advice about staff planning in the event of large numbers becoming sick or self-isolating, on procurement of medicine and equipment and how people would be cared for in their own home.

“Domiciliary care services are really important. If we get a lot of domiciliary care workers off ill that will be a big problem. People who need that care will not be getting support, they won’t get fed, and they won’t get washed or toileted. These people have real needs.”

“I want to know exactly what is NHS England telling CCGs [clinical commissioning groups] and GPs about how they should be responding to those in care homes. What is the plan for local authorities?

“The system is gearing up for an NHS response, not a whole system response. I believe there is a real ageism issue here.

“We haven’t heard any detailed plans. All we have heard is there are contingency plans.

“There is a complete lack of information.”

There are 120,000 vacancies in the social care system and if 20 per cent are forced to self-isolate it could leave the sector more than 200,000 staff short. There has been claims councils could re-deploy care staff and suspend rules on criminal record checks.

Helen Buckingham from the Nuffield Trust think tank said she was “very concerned” about social care adding: “With hospital beds so squeezed, patients will really need care services to keep functioning well enough to stop people being admitted if it can possibly be avoided.”

She said while the government’s “social distancing” policy would work for more “you can’t maintain distance between staff and service users”.

“Unlike the NHS the social care sector is also very fragmented, with a small number of large providers and a very large number of small local providers. There is no national command and control mechanism. So the role of local authorities is critical. They do have a good oversight of social care provision in their area, and they should be working with local providers on their resilience plans and ensuring coordination with the local NHS.”

In the House of Commons Labour’s shadow care minister said she had heard reports of care staff having to buy their own gloves and one providers equipment order had been “requisitioned” by the NHS.

She added: “There are already 120,000 vacancies in the care workforce and we are now facing the prospect of large numbers of care staff having to self-isolate because of coronavirus.”

The health secretary replied saying care staff were “vital in the national effort to address coronavirus” adding: “We will make sure we address any barriers to social care operating. In all contingency plans on the reasonable worst case scenario, plans are needed for being able to operate with a 20 per cent reduction in workforce. Making sure the best care can be provided in what is going to be a difficult time for social care is a really important part of the effort we are working on.”

Ian Hudspeth, from the Local Government Association, said: “A widespread coronavirus epidemic across the country would inevitably have an impact on the wide range of services councils provide and communities rely on. As always, they will follow expert advice.

“Councils are aware that residents will have concerns for vulnerable family and friends if this virus spreads further. They have plans in place for every possible scenario, for example if large numbers of key workers are off sick at one time or schools are closed, or if extraordinary containment or delay measures are recommended by the government.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The UK is extremely well prepared for these kinds of outbreaks. We know social care will be a vital part of our response to Covid-19, with providers looking after some of the most vulnerable in society.

“We are working closely across government with local authorities and providers themselves to make sure the adult social care sector is prepared. Public Health England has issued tailored guidance for care homes and will be updating this shortly.”

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