Care homes are being asked to take COVID patients straight from hospitals without a recent test under new guidance.
In a document seen by Sky News, the NHS is now advising that patients can be moved from a hospital directly to a care home within 90 days of a positive COVID test or the onset of symptoms.
Patients will not be required to have a further COVID-19 test in the 48 hours prior to their discharge.
But they will have to have completed a 14-day isolation period and have shown no new coronavirus symptoms or had any no new COVID-19 exposure.
Previously, those COVID patients who were discharged from hospital to a care home were required to have first been transferred to a care home specifically designated for the purpose of caring for them while they complete a 14-day isolation period.
In the new guidance, the NHS said this was “because that person may be infectious to others, and there is a risk of introducing COVID-19 into that care home”.
But it also adds: “We are now advising that for some within this group it will be appropriate for them to move directly to a care home from hospital provided that they meet the considerations described in this note, because we now know they do not pose an infection risk to other residents in a care home.”
The guidance states that “as our knowledge about the COVID-19 virus increases, it is right we update our guidance to clinicians and practitioners to reflect our current understanding of the impact of the virus”.
The NHS document adds that the discharge policy for those being discharged within 14 days of their first positive COVID-19 test “does not alter”, and that they should still be discharged to a “designated setting” to complete their remaining isolation period.
The updated guidance comes as hospitals face severe pressures from increasing numbers of COVID patients, with more than 35,000 coronavirus patients currently in hospitals across the UK.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News on Wednesday that the government is “looking to all different ways that we can relieve those pressures”, including the possibility of discharging COVID patients to hotels.
“In some cases, people need step-down care, they don’t actually need to be in a hospital bed,” he said.
Nadra Ahmed, chair of the National Care Association, said the new guidance comes at a time when care providers are already facing a “huge challenge”.
“We may have capacity, in terms of beds, but we have real challenges with staffing,” she told Sky News, as she described how care homes were suffering the same staff shortages as hospitals due to COVID.
Ms Ahmed added that some families of care home residents would be “very nervous” about the new policy and called for there to be no compulsion on providers to take COVID patients directly from hospitals.
“It should be up to the provider to make those decisions,” she said.
“We were told last year that people being discharged out of hospital were safe for care homes to take.
“I know this is a different time, and we know a lot more about the virus, but I think there will be some providers who will still be concerned.”
The Guardian first reported on the new care home guidance, with Professor Martin Green – chief executive of Care England, which represents private care providers – telling the newspaper: “The key is, it is for the care homes to decide and hospitals should not put undue pressure on care homes.”
Sky News has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for comment.