Care homes are waiting up to three weeks to get their coronavirus test results, it was claimed today as the UK’s swabbing fiasco continues.
The Government had promised to get carers swabbed every week, and residents every 28 days, so new cases could be detected quickly and isolated.
But the ‘world-leading’ testing system is failing to turn around samples on time as it battles to get through an ever-growing backlog of samples.
Care home leaders have branded the situation ‘totally unacceptable’, and warned it is only going to ‘get worse, not better’ because ‘test results are not coming back quickly enough’.
The backlog adds to Britain’s ongoing testing crisis which erupted earlier this month after demand rose to up to four times capacity. Ministers warned the shortage would last for weeks.
Scores of Brits, including nurses and doctors, complained about being unable to get swabbed for the disease — despite some drive-in sites standing completely empty. Others were forced to travel hundreds of miles to find out whether or not they were infected.
Care homes are having to wait up to three weeks to get coronavirus test results, and some staff are being sent for swabs before receiving previous results (stock)
Home with one in four batches going to waste
A care home boss has hit out at the Government’s ‘inadequate’ testing system which has seen one in four batches of tests go to waste because couriers have not turned up.
Mark Ellison, 46, owner of Temple Grove care home in East Sussex, said his manager was almost in tears this week after another 57 carefully administered swabs had to be thrown away.
He said he had expected ‘teething problems’ but it is ‘unacceptable’ that at least 25 per cent of the time the couriers do not turn up to collect the home’s samples.
When tests are collected, the results are often delayed with some coming back weeks later.
Mr Ellison, who owns the home with his wife Joanne, said: ‘At the moment our staff are agreeing to be swabbed, but we can’t force them to and I worry if this continues to be such a shambles they will be less inclined.’
The chairman of the Sheffield Care Association, Nicola Richards, told the Daily Telegraph she had to wait almost three weeks to get results for some swabs carried out on staff.
‘Such a delay is putting the residents, staff and the public at serious risk,’ she said. ‘By not getting the results back in a timely manner, it’s unsafe.
‘I know it’s a national problem as well as a local one. We have a Whatsapp group for local care professionals, and there are people on that group saying they haven’t had results for a week.’
She revealed they had sent a letter to Public Health England and local councillors to complain about the situation, but were yet to receive a response.
The managing director of St Cecilia’s Care Group in North Yorkshire, Mike Padgham, said its four homes are waiting up to five days for results which makes it ‘very difficult’ to keep testing staff weekly.
‘There is no doubt that staffing is the biggest issue facing us at the current time,’ he said.
‘Given that the Government has had six months to get proper testing of key workers in place, it is a scandal that we are struggling in this way and very worrying, especially as we are approaching winter, when traditionally healthcare is put under extra strain.’
The chairman of the National Care Association, Nadra Ahmed, who represents care homes across the country, told MailOnline many are having to wait four to six days to get test results.
‘We’re having cases of people who sent their first test on Friday and received result on Thursday evening, which is just in time for the second lot of tests to go off again,’ she said.
‘There are some people who are telling us that the second lot of tests are not being collected in a timely fashion.’
She branded the shambles ‘totally unacceptable’ and said it is heightening anxiety among both staff and residents who have ‘lived through quite a challenging period already’.
The chairman added that many care homes are starting to over-staff themselves to ensure they have enough employees on hand for residents, as workers spend days in self-isolation waiting for test results after they developed coronavirus-like symptoms.
NHS Covid-19 app refuses to let users enter test results, as testing fiasco rages on
The Government’s long-awaited NHS app did not allow users to enter coronavirus test results from NHS hospitals or Public Health England labs when it was first launched.
The oversight meant that the 70,000 swabs completed at these centres every day could not be put into the device, meaning others who may have been exposed could not be advised to self-isolate.
Department of Health officials said this happened as there was a problem getting the app to accept codes from these swabs.
It was the latest scandal to rock the test and trace system which has warned it is ‘weeks behind’ Boris Johnson’s deadline of 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.
It completed 198,000 yesterday, with lab bosses warning delays in equipment supplies mean they are some way off further expansion.
The app’s issue was rectified after it was reported on. A spokesman said a ‘minority’ of people had been unable to put their results onto the app.
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said he understood there was a problem with lab capacity, but that ‘simply isn’t good enough from the sector’s point of view’.
‘If you want to keep care homes free of coronavirus then they need their test results back in minutes, not days,’ he said.
‘We are getting into a situation where some care homes aren’t even getting the last week’s results back before testing staff again.’
The executive director of the National Care Forum, Vic Rayner, who represents 120 of the UK’s social care charities, accused the Government of saying ‘all the right things’ while failing to take action.
‘Things are improving, but if this is a juggernaut on the turn the Government needs to put a lot more hard spin on the wheel to get the prioritisation of test results in care settings to feel like a meaningful commitment on the ground,’ he said.
Kelly Andrews, GMB care lead, said: ‘If even the big providers are struggling with testing – where does this leave smaller companies who can’t close down homes to protect their vulnerable clients?’
She added: ‘Leaving staff untested for weeks at a time is a recipe for disaster. Not only are workers put at risk, but it could lead to care home deaths rocketing.’
Public Health England (PHE) data reveals the number of coronavirus outbreaks in care homes surged more than six-fold from the week ending September 11, when 35 outbreaks were recorded, to the week ending September 18, when 228 were identified.
In the most recent release, for the week ending September 25, a further 134 outbreaks were reported in the sector.
But care home bosses poured cold-water on these figures this morning, suggesting they do not provide an accurate picture of the situation.
In one week in September the UK’s biggest care home provider, HC-One, said it had seen new outbreaks in a dozen homes – equivalent to four per cent of its facilities.
By contrast, PHE said there had been outbreaks in just one per cent of all homes in the same week.
Judy Downey, chair of the Relatives and Residents Association, told The Guardian it looked like they were ‘underestimating’ the numbers. ‘The system seems to be riddled with inconsistencies,’ she added.
The warning comes amid fears local authorities could ban visits to care homes if Covid-19 outbreaks in their areas escalate, cutting off vital support for vulnerable residents.
Care UK and HC-One, two of the largest operators, have already closed dozens of homes to visitors in response to the new outbreak.
Age UK warned a number of care home’s residents have already died prematurely because they had ‘gone downhill fast’ after being cut off from their loved ones when visits were banned for four months.
Experts have previously urged councils to avoid banning visits, saying they can lead to the deterioration of conditions such as dementia.
The Government processed 198,000 tests yesterday, a 25 per cent drop from a high of 250,000 tests on Saturday.
Number 10 has still yet to hit its target of processing results within 24 hours, despite promising it would be reached by the start of July.
Around half of the capacity is given to care homes, to protect them from another outbreak.
Care homes were left high and dry in the first wave of the pandemic, when patients with the virus were discharged back to the centres and they were provided with inadequate supplies of PPE.
As many as 15,000 residents died from confirmed or suspected Covid-19, the Office for National Statistics said. And at least 10,000 more died unexpectedly from other causes.
A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘We continue to prioritise care homes for repeat retesting, and any care home resident or member of staff with symptoms is able to immediately access a free test with more than 120,000 sent out every day.
‘Between September 3 and 16, more than 700,000 tests were carried out at care homes with the average time for results less than four days.
‘Through our Adult Social Care Winter Plan, we are providing free PPE to care homes and have ring-fenced over £1.1billion to support providers through our Infection Control Fund.’
WHAT WENT WRONG FOR CARE HOMES? A TIMELINE OF FAILINGS
FEBRUARY – SAGE scientists warned Government ‘very early on’ about the risk to care homes
Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, revealed in April that he and other senior scientists warned politicians ‘very early on’ about the risk COVID-19 posed to care homes.
He said: ‘So very early on we looked at a number of topics, we looked at nosocomial infection very early on, that’s the spread in hospitals, and we flagged that as something that the NHS needed to think about.
‘We flagged the fact that we thought care homes would be an important area to look at, and we flagged things like vaccine development and so on. So we try to take a longer term view of things as well as dealing with the urgent and immediate areas.’
The SAGE committee met for the first time on January 22, suggesting ‘very early on’ in its discussions was likely the end of January or the beginning of February.
MARCH – Hospital patients discharged to homes without tests
In March and April at least 25,000 people were discharged from NHS hospitals into care homes without getting tested for coronavirus, a report by the National Audit Office found.
This move came at the peak of the outbreak and has been blamed for ‘seeding’ Covid-19 outbreaks in the homes which later became impossible to control.
NHS England issued an order to its hospitals to free up as many beds as they could, and later sent out joint guidance with the Department of Health saying that patients did not need to be tested beforehand.
Chair of the public accounts committee and a Labour MP in London, Meg Hillier, said: ‘Residents and staff were an afterthought yet again: out of sight and out of mind, with devastating consequences.’
MARCH – Public Health England advice still did not raise alarm about care home risk and allowed visits
An early key error in the handling of the crisis, social care consultant Melanie Henwood told the Mail on Sunday, was advice issued by Public Health England (PHE) on February 25 that it remained ‘very unlikely’ people in care homes would become infected as there was ‘currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the UK’.
Yet a fortnight earlier the UK Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling committee had concluded: ‘It is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will become established in the coming weeks.’
On March 13, PHE advice for care homes changed ‘asking no one to visit who has suspected Covid-19 or is generally unwell’ – but visits were still allowed.
Three days later, Mr Johnson said: ‘Absolutely, we don’t want to see people unnecessarily visiting care homes.’
MARCH/APRIL – Testing not readily available to care home residents
In March and April coronavirus swab tests – to see who currently has the disease – were rationed and not available to all care home residents suspected of having Covid-19.
Government policy dictated that a sample of residents would be tested if one showed symptoms, then an outbreak would be declared and anyone else with symptoms presumed to be infected without a test.
The Department of Health has been in control of who gets Covid-19 tests and when, based on UK testing capacity.
MARCH/APRIL – Bosses warned homes didn’t have enough PPE
Care home bosses were furious in March and April – now known to have been the peak of the UK’s epidemic – that their staff didn’t have enough access to personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and aprons.
A letter sent from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) to the Department of Health saw the care chiefs accuse a senior figure at the Department of overseeing a ‘shambolic response’.
Adass said it was facing ‘confusion’ and additional work as a result of mixed messaging put out by the Government.
It said the situation around PPE, which was by then mandatory for all healthcare workers, was ‘shambolic’ and that deliveries had been ‘paltry’ or ‘haphazard’.
A shortage of PPE has been a consistent issue from staff in care homes since the pandemic began, and the union Unison revealed at the beginning of May that it had already received 3,600 reports about inadequate access to PPE from workers in the sector.
APRIL – Care home deaths left out of official fatality count
The Department of Health refused to include people who had died outside of hospitals in its official daily death count until April 29, three weeks after deaths had peaked in the UK.
It started to include the ‘all settings’ measure from that date and added on 3,811 previously uncounted Covid-19 deaths on the first day.