Need to restrict staff movement to limit coronavirus spread ‘obvious’ from March, say care homes

Care homes have said the need to restrict the movement of staff between homes to help limit the spread of coronavirus was “obvious” from March.

Staffing is one of several factors thought to have played a part in the spread of Covid-19 within care homes, including the rapid discharge of thousands of hospital patients, and struggles to access personal protective equipment (PPE) and regular tests.

Aspens, which provides services for people with learning disabilities and autism in 45 locations across Kent and Sussex, limited staff movement between homes on March 16.

Staff carried overnight bags to work in case they needed to move in, while others moved into temporary accommodation away from their families to minimise the chances of spreading infection.

The provider has seen no cases in residents, many of whom are over 60, and just one in a staff member, who self-isolated for more than a week before testing positive.

Chief executive Robert Shanahan said the Government should have provided clear instructions “very early on”.

It was not until mid-May that the Westminster Government issued guidance to this effect.

Mr Shanahan said he knows of care homes unable to do this because of high levels of staff self-isolating or off sick, while others had felt they should not go against March guidance suggesting English providers should share workforces.

He said: “It’s pretty obvious… if you’ve got a group of vulnerable people due to a variety of health conditions, you’re allowing people to come and go, and in some cases go to a hospital and come back into services without testing, it’s obvious what’s going to happen next.”

Mr Shanahan added: “The Government had a responsibility, as our leaders in this country, to issue advice that would have protected more people, would have reduced the risk to their loved ones, and would have reduced the risk to the most vulnerable people in our society.

“And I think that’s been lost amongst it all – we, as a society, have a responsibility to care for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and actually the Government failed.”

HC One closed its 329 UK care homes to non-essential visitors, including families, on March 12.

Director of standards Liz Whyte said staff working across homes were offered the same hours in a single home, and within each home cohorted staff to work in particular areas.

She told the PA news agency: “That was very early, as soon as it was recognised that that’s where the potential threat was coming from, that reducing the footfall was very important, so it was very early on in the journey.

“And of course testing wasn’t available at that time, so we had to treat everybody as if they had the virus, because we didn’t know. And what we did know is that there were a number of people asymptomatic.”

Since March, the homes have seen a more than 50% reduction in use of agency care staff, who are block-booked so they cannot work elsewhere.

Ms Whyte added: “Some of the things we’ve done have been before the guidance has come out because we’ve known that it’s the right thing to do. We closed the homes down before the Government guidance came out because we could see what was coming and felt we needed to do that.”

Little Wakering House, a 13-bed residential home in Essex for adults with learning disabilities, has seen no deaths or suspected cases.

Its oldest resident is a 65-year-old man who also has dementia.

The home paused all visits from March 16 and stopped using agency staff on March 23, manager Mark Topps said.

He and other staff members covered night or weekend shifts usually staffed by agencies, sometimes working 70-hour weeks to minimise footfall.

Mr Topps told PA: “It just seemed like a logical thing to do, but that was way before the guidance came to lock down care homes and to restrict staff movements.”

Another large UK provider, which asked to remain anonymous, said none of its staff moved between more than two homes, but further restrictions would have been difficult due to so many self-isolating.

They added: “Regular testing was the game changer, but by the time we had regular access to testing we were past the peak.”

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