Care home chiefs fear deadly mistakes made at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic risk being repeated as councils offer them extra cash to take Covid-positive hospital patients.
More than 15,000 people died of the virus in care homes earlier this year, according to official figures, after it was reported that many elderly residential facilities were flooded with Covid-19 patients returning from hospital.
Now, despite a Government pledge to place a ‘protective ring’ around vulnerable residents, care homes in Cumbria are being offered £1,500 – double the local weekly fee – to take Covid-positive patients from hospital.
Birmingham city council has been offering £1,000 incentives for months while Morecambe Bay clinical commissioning group wrote to care homes offering them extra cash only last month.
Trafford council in Greater Manchester has also warned care homes to ready themselves for a fresh wave of hospital discharges, telling them to expect Covid-positive patients within just two hours of their discharge from hospital.
Eileen Chubb, from the whistleblowing charity Compassion in Care, said: ‘It’s the same attitude to elderly people all over again – rushing them into care homes. They’re sacrificing people needlessly.’
Roger Waluube, manager of Pelham House care home in Folkestone, Kent, said: ‘It is completely unacceptable to transfer people from the hospital into the community when you think they could pose a risk to others.’
In April, hospitals were told to stop sending untested patients to care homes following a spate of outbreaks, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged to strengthen ‘the protective ring’ around them. Government guidance now states that no care home should be forced to admit a resident if it is unable to cope with Covid-19.
But care homes in Cumbria were sent a letter last month from the local council and NHS trust asking them to take Covid-positive hospital patients. The £1,500 payments cover the cost of additional care and are only open to homes that have been Covid-free for 28 days. Local authorities pay £550-600 per week on average, the National Care Association says.
Judy Downey, of the Relatives and Residents Association, said the incentive was ‘perverse’, adding: ‘What are we saying about older people in care homes? That they are collateral damage? It’s not humane.’
Highlighting another issue, Nadra Ahmed, of the National Care Association, said: ‘In the Government’s winter plan they talked about making discharges safe. We have had reports from providers who’ve taken people from hospital with negative test results and they’ve tested them on arrival and their tests come back positive.’
Professor Adam Gordon, of the British Geriatrics Society, who led a Covid ‘red-zone’ ward in hospital during the first wave, said: ‘It’s clear from Government advice that they recognise the mistakes from last time – too much movement of staff between care homes and too much movement between hospitals and care homes.
‘What’s not clear from their winter plan is whether we have sufficient mechanisms to prevent those mistakes being repeated. In Scotland they do not send Covid-positive people into care homes. In England that is still a possibility and the reliance is on the care home to get it right.’
Tony Carling, a care home operator in Cumbria, has decided not to take Covid-positive patients, but fears it could be a costly move. He said: ‘The majority of our clients are funded by local authorities, so it’s very difficult to turn down. You are under extreme financial pressure as to whether you get further business from that authority if you don’t support their needs.’
Mike Padgham, of the Independent Care Group, said: ‘If you’ve got lots of empty beds, it’s not long before your business no longer becomes viable. Homes operate at about 90 per cent occupancy. The challenge with the pandemic is that you’ve got a stark choice between putting your business at risk or accepting new people with a risk.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We have ring-fenced £1.1billion to support care providers to prevent infections, and are making £3.7billion available to councils.
We have provided 200million items of PPE and are enabling care providers to meet all their Covid-19 PPE needs free of charge. Last week we announced over £500 million extra funding to restrict movement of staff between homes to stop the spread of the virus.’