Coronavirus: Government warned over ‘reckless’ plan to set up COVID units in care homes

Plans are being made to set up coronavirus units within existing care homes, Sky News can reveal – something multiple providers have described as “reckless” and an attempt to keep the elderly out of hospitals.

Sky News has obtained a copy of a leaked email sent to providers in County Durham, asking if they are prepared to set up the designated units.

It says: “We are inviting expressions of interest from care homes who are able to offer block-booked beds for service users who test positive for COVID-19 over the winter period.”

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It adds that it will apply to both “service users who are discharged from hospital” and “potentially service users within the community who require 24-hour care to avoid hospital admittance”.

One anonymous provider said: ‘It’s reckless and I think it’s quite pointed. It’s based on age. It’s not giving an equal access as people who live in the community.”

At the start of the pandemic, there was intense criticism of government guidelines which meant un-tested coronavirus patients were sent to care homes – a policy that critics say caused the virus to spread within the care sector.

During a House of Commons select committee hearing last Tuesday, care minister Helen Whately said “specific facilities” would be set up for care home residents who have the virus as part of the Winter Care Plan.

But those facilities – in the vast majority of cases – will be within existing care homes, Care England, which represents independent care providers, has told Sky News.

Providers who have spoken to Sky News have said it is virtually impossible to contain the illness unless patients are cared for in an entirely separate building.

Care England’s chief executive, Martin Green, said: “It was completely ridiculous for a scheme to be announced and then for it to be left to the vagaries of 300-odd local authorities.

“We may find people being transferred to care homes that are not able to offer proper support and this might lead to an outbreak of COVID. We saw from the first wave just how desperately difficult that is and that people’s lives are at risk.”

On the issue of easing pressure on hospitals, he said: “If somebody needs 24-hour care because of their COVID status, then for me that should mean they are in a hospital.

“And of course we have had a lot of money spent on emergency hospitals – Nightingale hospitals – so I’m unclear why they are singling out older people who have COVID but seem to be being denied access to a hospital.”

One North East care home owner, who did not want to be named, told Sky News: “There should be a separate facility – a so-called ‘hot home’ – which is just for the care of the COVID-positive.

“We can’t mix populations. We can’t put our current residents at risk.”

They added that if these units are part of the same building, then “I don’t think it makes a difference because the virus is too clever and too good at getting around”.

Providers say it should be a mandatory requirement that everything within the new units should be separated from the existing care home.

The Durham County Council email says: “The dedicated unit should be self-contained with access as separate as possible – eg a dedicated entrance/exit with hand washing/cleaning facilities.

“It is also preferable if, where feasible, dedicated kitchen areas, sluice and bathroom facilities can be provided.”

Paul Sexton, whose mother Cathleen was 84 when she died of coronavirus in a care home in County Durham in May, says he is prepared to speak out on behalf of those with loved ones in care homes.

He says the staff who looked after his mother were “amazing”, but believes the winter strategy to deal with COVID in care homes is flawed.

He said: “It just doesn’t stack up. Why would you put a virus in a care home? Wave two is coming – well it’s here and we’re doing exactly the same as wave one. We know we can’t contain the virus and people are going to die unnecessarily again and it is chilling. It is really chilling.”

Jane Robinson, Durham County Council’s corporate director for adult and health services, said: “In common with all councils up and down the country, we were instructed by the Department for Health and Social Care to identify accommodation as part of its Adult Social Care Winter Plan.

“In complying with the department’s instruction to notify the Care Quality Commission of suitable accommodation, we have made contact with providers to allow us to consider our position before responding to this government direction.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said: “Our absolute priority is to prevent infections in care homes while ensuring that everyone receives the right care, in the right place, at the right time. We are working with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and the NHS to ensure everyone discharged to a care home has an up-to-date COVID-19 test result and anyone positive is discharged to a care home the CQC has assured is able to provide safe care.”

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