Delays in getting coronavirus test results back have been condemned as “appalling and negligent” by the chair of a body representing 4,000 care homes in the UK.
Nadra Ahmed, executive chair of the National Care Association, told Sky News COVID-19 is starting to “seep back in” to care homes and revealed how much fear there is among the sector.
“I think it’s appalling; it’s negligent not to have it up to speed,” she said.
“The promises were made in July that we would have tests available as we need them.
“Now it’s September and we still haven’t got it working and it is the single most important thing at this moment in time to keep our residents and our staff safe as transmissions continue in the communities.”
Sky News has obtained a copy of a letter sent to care homes last week by the Department of Health and Social Care warning of delays in getting test results.
It admits: “We told you our aim was to return results to you within 72 hours. We are aware that that some care homes have experienced coronavirus test results taking longer than 72 hours and that in the last week there has been an increase in the number of unclear/void results.
“We would like to assure you we are aware of this issue and are taking it very seriously.”
But care home owners worry lessons simply have not been learnt from the first six months of the pandemic and once again care homes are not getting the support they need.
John Oates owns two care homes in the North East of England – Durham House and Picktree Court in Durham – with a total of 119 beds.
Throughout the pandemic since March there has been one death at his homes from coronavirus but he now has two staff who have tested positive prompting fears a rise in cases in the community is starting to find its way back in to social care settings.
One of his staff spent three days working at Picktree Court before getting the positive test result, but just last week another staff member waited more than a week for a result. That result turned out negative.
Mr Oates said: “Test result periods are getting to be unacceptable. The issue of testing time returns is a massive problem at the moment because we could have asymptomatic people working with our residents during the time when they are COVID positive.
“We think our surrounding area in Durham is showing signs of the virus being rife and this seven day turnaround for tests is not acceptable.”
The care home owner has also raised concerns that health care workers including district nurses are not being routinely tested.
Mr Oates added there was a “lack of strategy and direction” and “the silence is deafening” from central government.
Debbie Strong, manager of Ysguborwen Care home in Aberdare in South Wales, shares those concerns.
Her home was COVID-free through the worst of the pandemic but a staff member has just tested positive and worked in the home for three days before getting the result.
The home is also part of the Rhondda Cynon Taf county – due to be put into a local lockdown from 6pm on Thursday 17 September.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has blamed the testing problems on a “colossal spike” in demand, but promised tougher rules on the movement of care workers between homes will be published on Thursday.
He was tackled by Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, standing in at Prime Minister’s Questions while Sir Keir Starmer self-isolated after a member of his family displayed coronavirus symptoms, for promising all in-person test results would be back within 24 hours by the end of June.
But Ms Rayner said he needed to “get some skates on” to address the issue and warned: “We are staring down the barrel of a second wave with no plan for the looming crisis.”
She played up a HuffPost report that ministers were consulted over the weekend on whether grouse shooting should be excluded from the new law banning gatherings of more than six people.
“People can’t say goodbye to their loved ones, grandparents can’t see their grandchildren and frontline staff can’t get the tests that they need,” Ms Rayner said.
“And what was the top priority for the COVID war cabinet this weekend? Restoring grouse shooting.”
Mr Johnson conceded “we are concerned about the rates of infection in care homes” but insisted the UK’s testing record “compares extremely well with any other European country”.
The Department for Health and Social Care said: “Visiting professionals such as district nurse are required to wear appropriate PPE in order to protect themselves and those around them.
“Regular routine asymptomatic testing is available to care home staff and residents, and we are currently running two pilots to look at regular testing for visiting professionals to care homes.
“From the start of the pandemic we have been doing everything we can to ensure care home residents and staff are protected, including testing all residents and staff, providing 208 million items of PPE, ring-fencing £600m to prevent infections in care homes and making a further £3.7bn available to councils to address pressures caused by the pandemic – including in adult social care.”