Nearly nine out of 10 Covid-19 tests taken under the system used by care homes in England were returned after the government’s 48-hour target in September, official figures reveal.
The performance of the NHS test-and-trace system has sparked warnings from care managers that continued delays will increase the risk of infection among their vulnerable residents.
At the end of the first month in which tests were routinely provided to care home staff and residents, 87% of those carried out at satellite testing centres, predominantly used by care homes, were returned after more than two days. Over half took more than three days to come back.
Related: Health officials fear de-prioritising of Covid testing in care homes in England
Ministers had promised weekly testing in care homes in the summer, but it only began comprehensively in September. The health minister James Bethelltold parliament 48 hours was the target for getting results back.
Care workers are now being tested weekly and residents monthly, but managers are concerned that delays of over a week in some cases in receiving results mean asymptomatic staff could be spreading infection.
Recorded infections in care homes have been falling slightly, according to Public Health England figures, but there are fears that in areas of rising community infection, such as the north of England, once the virus gets into homes there are likely to be increases in cases.
Mark Adams, the chief executive of Community Integrated Care, a national charity that is one of the biggest care providers in Liverpool, said it currently ttook three and a half days on average to get results. Only one in five weekly staff tests were coming back with the government’s 48-hour target.
There have only been a handful of positive tests among CIC residents since the first wave in which 49 died, but Adams said: “We are in a situation where there is such community infection building that sooner or later [someone] makes a mistake and it will get into the building.
“If someone is asymptomatic but infected and is continuing to work you are ratcheting up the risk.”
The speed of test results improved in September, Department of Health and Social Care figures suggest, but the rates for the last week of the month still showed only a fifth coming back within 48 hours. At HC-One, the UK’s largest private care home provider, more than 200 tests took more than seven days to return, affecting 35 homes, and 320 results came back void.
“Routine testing is only effective if we receive timely results,” a company spokesperson said. “Like many providers, we have experienced delays in receiving some test results, with some homes waiting more than seven days for results to return, which increases uncertainty and anxiety for our local teams, residents, and their families.”
DHSC said adult social care remained a testing priority and that the average time taken to receive a result from satellite centres has dropped from 102 to 59 hours.
“Any care home resident or staff member with symptoms can already immediately access a free test, with more than 120,000 sent out daily for the sector,” a spokesperson said.
Robin Hall, the secretary of the Hampshire Care Association and manager of the Home of Comfort nursing home in Southsea, said she did not think testing was getting any better: “We are getting the results back within a week, but it is still taking three to four days, which is too long if somebody is positive. If we get it in 48 hours we might be able to do something.”
She said 10% of the tests carried out at her home last week had come back void. “At a time when we have a lot of other problems it would be nice if this just worked,” she said.