Ministers have been accused of being “negligent” towards care home residents and staff, after it emerged that the target of delivering regular coronavirus tests this summer has been dropped.
In a leaked memo obtained by The Sunday Times, the government’s adult social care testing director, Jane Cummings, said that the originally promised timelines for rolling out regular tests had been abandoned.
Weekly testing for staff and 28-day tests for residents was due to begin in England on 6 July for care homes looking after over-65s and those with dementia, with a rollout to all adult social care homes from August.
However, Prof Cummings’s memo suggested that the target for care homes with older people and dementia sufferers had been put back to 7 September. Other adult care homes will only be able to order test kits from 31 August.
A member of the Independent Sage expert group said the delay was "not good enough".
Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, told the BBC: "We know care homes were absolutely devastated in March and April, when they were one-third of all UK deaths, and we absolutely have responsibility to protect care homes now. And we protect them by testing people and making sure we are not bringing infection into these really vulnerable communities."
Regular testing for care homes was introduced following anger over coronavirus outbreaks that claimed the lives of thousands of elderly residents in the early weeks of the pandemic. Announcing the plan in June, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said it would “not only keep residents and care workers safe, but give certainty and peace of mind to families”.
Evidence that the programme was running into problems emerged last week when the chief executive of the UK’s largest private provider of social care, Care UK, wrote to relatives of residents to say he did not expect to be able to provide regular tests for at least five weeks.
Andrew Knight said that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was blaming the delay on issues with kits from a supplier, but said communication with government had been “sorely lacking”.
The regular testing regime – designed to pick up infections before symptoms become apparent, so that potential care home outbreaks can be nipped in the bud – had been picking up pace until the DHSC withdrew kits from Northern Ireland-based supplier Randox on 15 July on safety grounds.
Prof Cummings’s memo is understood to say that “previously advised timelines for rolling out regular testing in care homes” were being dropped because of “unexpected delays”. She also admitted that the system for registering tests was “unnecessarily burdensome”.
A separate memo circulated among health officials last week said that 64 per cent of homes for the elderly or those with dementia had not had a round of “asymptomatic” testing. Of 9,144 homes, only 3,271 were reportedly sent testing equipment.
The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, said the delays would cause “unnecessary confusion and anxiety” on a day when reports suggested that Boris Johnson was mulling plans to request over-50s to remain at home, while allowing younger people to move about freely, in order to avoid another blanket lockdown in the case of an upsurge in coronavirus infections.
The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, added to confusion today by telling Times Radio that the option of an age-differentiated lockdown was “not something that’s being actively considered”.
Mr Ashworth said: “With infections rising, it’s frankly negligent ministers have failed to deliver on their promise to regularly test care home residents and staff. And to brief newspapers that over-50s may need to shield on the day shielding has been paused causes yet more unnecessary confusion and anxiety.
“Ministers have been too slow to act and explain their strategy throughout this pandemic. Test and trace is costing £10bn but is nowhere near the ‘world beating’ system we were promised.
“It’s critical measures are now put in place to control the virus, including rapidly improving testing and locally led contact-tracing teams. The government failed to protect care home residents and staff early on in this pandemic. They mustn’t make the same mistake again.”
The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said: “The decision to drop the pledge to test all care home residents regularly would be a decision to desert care home residents entirely. The reports today, if true, are sadly just another example of a government that is either woefully incompetent or one that simply doesn’t care.
“The government has made clear right throughout the coronavirus crisis that protecting those in our care homes is not a priority for them – from the beginning of the crisis, ministers failed to equip care homes with sufficient testing and PPE, whilst discharging patients with the virus into their homes.
“The test and trace system is in utter disarray, exposing the most vulnerable in our society to coronavirus. The need for an inquiry to begin its work now, so that the prime minister and his government are forced to come to terms with the reality of their errors and learn from them, is more important than ever.”
The DHSC did not deny delays in the rollout of regular tests in care homes but stressed that any resident or staff member who suspects they may have the coronavirus will have access to the antigen tests available to everyone in the UK.
A spokesperson for the department confirmed that there were issues with “asymptomatic retesting”, relating to the issues with Randox swab tests, the ability to build testing kits, overall lab capacity and a greater-than-anticipated return rate of care home test kits.
The DHSC spokesperson said: “It is completely wrong to suggest care homes were deliberately deprived of testing resources, and any care home resident or member of staff with symptoms can immediately access a free test.
“We continue to issue at least 50,000 tests a day to care homes across the country and prioritise tests for higher-risk outbreak areas.
“A combination of factors have meant that a more limited number of testing kits, predominantly used in care homes, are currently available for asymptomatic retesting and we are working round the clock with providers to restore capacity.”
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