Care home crisis: what today’s announcement really means for Covid-19 in winter

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Hollie Richardson
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Care homes during pandemic.

The government has just announced its “winter care home action plan” to support care homes throughout flu season. But, following the first care home crisis in the pandemic, does it go far enough in protecting the most vulnerable people in society?

Care workers were among the “national heroes” that politicians clapped for on their doorsteps every Thursday during lockdown

But the number of care home deaths only started to be included in official daily death tolls at the end of April, revealing that around a quarter of known coronavirus deaths in the UK happened in care homes. The latest government figures showed that 19,394 of deaths in care homes between April and July involved Covid-19.

And then there’s the Office of National Statistics research that showed care workers are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 than health workers; 131 care workers died with the virus by mid-May

It sparked national outrage: how had the most vulnerable people in society been let down so much? Why had the government acted so slowly? Why weren’t the elderly, and the people who care for them, treated as a priority? Why aren’t care workers paid with bigger salaries rather than rounds of applause? Where was the adequate personal protective equipment?

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And yet, it feels like the anger and frustration quickly subsided as lockdown rules eased, Rishi Runak encouraged us to Eat Out to Help Out and the number of coronvarius cases and deaths started to drop. 

But the facts remain: Covid-19 is still out there. The R rate is rising. Winter – aka: flu season – is on its way. A second wave is quite likely. And the people in care homes are still the most vulnerable in this ongoing pandemic. 

Now that summer recess is over, questions around the issue are finally started to be addressed again. 

When deputy leader of the opposition Angela Rayner asked prime minister Boris Johnson what the average wage for a care worker in the UK is during yesterday’s PMQ’s, Johnson failed to answer. What he did say, however, was that a “winter care home action plan” would be announced the following day.

That plan has just been released. 

The BBC reports that the government has confirmed that care homes in England will get £546m extra funding to try to reduce the transmission of coronavirus during the winter. The fund was set up in May this year and has been extended until March 2021. The money will help pay workers full wages when they are self-isolating, and will ensure carers only work in one care home, reducing the spread of the virus. It will also help pay for PPE. 

Although the funding is of course welcomed, Karolina Gerlich from The Care Workers Charity has urgent questions about how it will be accessed and used.

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“The funding needs to be easier for care providers to access, because there were problems before,” Gerlich tells Stylist. “It needs to be more flexible around the providers’ needs, in terms of what they can use it for. And the application process for the government’s funding needs to be as simple as possible (The Care Workers Charity has paid out more than £1.5million over six months to top up care staff’s wages when they’ve been self-isolating). They also need to be encouraged to do it.”

The fact that flu season is just around the corner also adds major concerns about the health of care home residents as well as the staffing levels. And there’s the question of testing: with so many people unable to get tested, what does this mean for care home residents and staff? “They’re having to wait a long time, there are issues with results coming back unclear and they’re having to redo the whole thing – it’s a very time-consuming thing for care providers to test everybody. Again, it has not been made as simple as it possibly could be.”

Care homes: are they being properly supported in the run up to winter?

Mental health is another huge issue in the care homes crisis. It’s been over six months of very intense work for carers, and there have been huge changes in how they work. Many isolated themselves from their families to limit the spread of coronavirus during lockdown, and they’re worried about having to do that again. 

“It’s the mental health of people living in care homes too,” Gerlich adds, referring to the fact that regulations around visitations are unclear. “How are we going to make Christmas special for people? There’s a lack of clarity and that causes stress.”

Ultimately, Gerlich asks the question we all want to know: “If the second wave comes in, is social care going to be behind the back of the queue again?” With extra funding, knowledge about the virus and social distancing measures already in place, the answer is, surely, no. But there are still many issues to be addressed properly before we can fully believe that. 

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