Ministers viewed care homes as not ‘part of the state’ and were reluctant to intervene, inquiry hears

Care homes were seen as private organisations which should look after themselves early on in the pandemic by a Government reluctant to intervene, the boss of a major older people’s charity has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams also told how helpline staff have had to be trained in dealing with callers in “great distress” during and post-pandemic, adding that it had “undoubtedly exacted a toll on many older people”.

Ms Abrahams (pictured), whose organisation is the leading charity for older people, said Age UK felt “quite cut off” from the Government in the first few months of the pandemic and had to do most of its communications through the national media.

On Thursday, she told the hearing as part of the inquiry’s second module on core UK decision-making and political governance: “No-one was reaching out to us from Government on the whole and we were finding it really difficult to reach in.

“It was as though the wagons had circled and everyone was very internally focused within Government.”

She said there had been a “sense of fatalism” around older people, with an underlying assumption that those with care needs would be unlikely to survive Covid-19.

The inquiry also heard that there had been a lack of understanding of the care sector, with Ms Abrahams noting “its fragmented governance” which she said appeared to lead to a “reluctance” on the part of the Government to intervene.

She told the hearing there was “a real sense sometimes, I think more from ministers certainly rather than officials, that these were private organisations so, you know, it was up to them to look after themselves, this was not part of the state”.

She added: “So I think the fact that social care is so fragmented – and in practice, as you know now, provides an absolutely crucial public service for very vulnerable people – but with its fragmented governance, it meant there was a reluctance, and actually to begin with an inability really to know how Government could help.

“They didn’t have the information (on care homes). They didn’t know who they were. They didn’t have a list even, they couldn’t even write to them to begin with.”

Giving evidence during module one hearings in June, former health secretary Matt Hancock admitted adult social care was in a “terrible” state of pandemic preparedness, with the Government lacking basic knowledge, including how many care homes were in the UK at the time when coronavirus struck.

Andrew O’Connor KC referred to Ms Abrahams’ lengthy witness statement which detailed some of the lasting effects of the pandemic on older people.

He said: “Some of the concepts you describe in your statement are physical and mental deconditioning as a result of lockdown, and also an effect on mental health and much higher rates of depression and self-harming and suicide amongst older people”.

Ms Abrahams expanded, telling the hearing: “Yes, we’ve had to provide new training for some of our helpline staff on how to cope with people who are ringing up in great distress and that only happened during and after the pandemic. It has undoubtedly exacted a toll on many older people, that anxiety.”

Mr O’Connor referred to a mention in her statement of carers and family members of dementia sufferers who might have “wandered off” from home being uncertain as to whether they could go out to find them for fear they might be breaking lockdown regulations.

Ms Abrahams said: “I think we certainly heard of lots of different ways in which people trying very hard to stay on the right side of the law got in the way of being able to do the things they wanted to for their loved ones, even if that was being afraid to go out for a walk because they read that the police had arrested someone who’d sat on a bench, those sorts of things.”

She said the charity is in “no doubt” there will have been neglect and abuse due to people being without support for long periods of time in the pandemic.

She said: “One’s heart goes out to carers and families who found there was no one to call for help and they were with somebody who was profoundly unwell for long periods of time. And we have no doubt at Age UK that this will have led to neglect, to abuse, to enormous distress for carers and also for people being cared for.”

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