A social care leader is calling for an urgent and specific support package for struggling care homes and homecare companies in Wales – including an about-turn on the decision to refuse to give them swabs to test for coronavirus.
Mario Kreft MBE, the chair of Care Forum Wales, said many of the organisation’s 450 members who provide care for 20,000 vulnerable were striving to cope with the massive and unprecedented pressures caused by the outbreak.
According to Mr Kreft, many providers had told him they felt “abandoned” by the Westminster government and called on them to provide Wales with the necessary funding.
The Welsh Government, he said, should then do “whatever it takes” and make social care a special case for support because it was a business like no other, with lives at stake.
It was clear, he said, that care home residents would no longer be admitted to hospital while GP visits and pharmacy support were being reduced or halted completely.
One thing that could be done immediately to help the social care sector was to provide care homes and domiciliary care companies with swabs so residents and staff could be tested.
It would, he said, be a great help to the care homes but also relieve the growing strain on the NHS.
At the moment, if a member of staff comes into contact with a resident suspected of being infected they have to self-isolate for up to 14 days, leaving the front line depleted.
If the swabs were available and the results of the test proved negative the member of staff would be able to return to work within a day.
Mr Kreft is writing to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and First Minister Mark Drakeford to say it was vital they made care homes and domiciliary care a special case.
He said: “It is, of course, important to prop up all areas of the economy including tourism and hospitality but social care really needs to be made a special case for a specific support package because our fantastic and dedicated staff are on the frontline dealing with life and death situations.
“The social care sector provides care for 20,000 vulnerable people in care homes across Wales – that’s 8,000 more than the NHS – so the scale of the crisis facing our members and their heroic staff is enormous.
“As well as supporting the sector in the short-term, it’s also vital that care homes and domiciliary care homes survive in the longer-term because the need for them is not going to go away.
“The social care sector has previously been recognised by the Welsh Government as one of the key pillars of the foundation economy in Wales.
“It is of critical importance that we maintain the capacity in our care homes otherwise the future is going to be even bleaker for the older people in our population.
“Rather than being seen as being at the bottom of the priority list, they should be seen as part of the solution.
“Care homes are available to help relieve the growing burden on the NHS and free up desperately needed beds in hospitals but anybody who is being discharged from hospital and transferred to a care home really must be tested for coronavirus before that happens.
“We have asked the Welsh Government for swabs so that staff can be tested if they are caring for somebody with the virus.
“If they test proves negative they can then return to work on the frontline after just a day of self-isolation but the fact that we are being denied the ability to test means that staff who come into contact with patients who are infected will have to be off work for a week or a fortnight. And that’s causing huge problems in terms of staffing.
“Protective equipment has been promised but has not been delivered and that’s also a major issue that needs to be resolved urgently.
“We need better, clearer advice on how to risk assess people in vulnerable groups, people with underlying health conditions and pregnant women.
“If pregnant women need to be off for four months, funding should be available to pay them and people needed to replace them during that period.
“Statutory sick pay does not apply to the larger companies with more than 250 employees and that’s a massive cause for concern which will could have catastrophic unintended consequences.
“The vast majority of the social care in Wales is publicly funded and commissioned by health boards and local authorities so there is an obligation on them to provide the necessary resources at this time of unique need.
“The sector was chronically underfunded before all of this began and you could not possibly expect providers to be able to meet the current challenges in the fees that are currently paid.
“We’re looking for an announcement from the Chancellor that the Welsh Government is going to get the resources it needs, one that is specific to social care, specific to what are we going to do to ensure that care homes can meet the challenge that they are facing in terms of the equipment, in terms of the extra staffing, in terms of all the things that couldn’t possibly be envisaged to fall on small and medium enterprises.
“This is a national emergency and social care is an invisible emergency service which has always underpinned the NHS.
“I am being told by our members that they feel the sector has been abandoned – our members are not just anxious they are frightened.
“These are independently-run, publicly-funded facilities in communities providing care for the most vulnerable.
“In many cases, they’ve been the bastions of their community providing services for years, and now in this time of great need, they don’t know where to go.
“Local authorities are inconsistent in what they’re saying and Care Forum Wales very concerned that any extra resources that come through local authorities or local health boards will not necessarily reach the sharp end to pay staff or recruit extra staff.
“We need a consistent, clear approach instead of 29 variations on a theme via the 22 councils and seven health boards which is a recipe for confusion.
“This cannot be a postcode lottery. It needs to be done centrally in a consistent and coordinated way.
According to Mr Kreft, a similar picture was emerging in England where the UK Home Care Association had mirrored their concerns.
The association’s chief executive Dr Jane Townson said: “We are desperately worried about the ability of care providers to remain solvent, whilst paying unprecedented numbers of care workers who are sick or self-isolating.
“Councils and the NHS only pay for care delivered. They will not pay for care workers who are prevented from working. People who buy their own homecare will not be able to bear the additional cost of staff absence.”