July 10, 2020
Dr Zahid Chauhan OBE is a national health campaigner, GP, and founder of Homeless-Friendly, a health charity for rough sleepers.
Here, he explores how wrong the Prime Minister is to lay blame at the feet of care staff.
In the North of England, we have a saying: ‘Take as you find.’
Roughly, it means never make a judgement until you have seen for yourself. And that is something the Prime Minister might have been wise to do before he criticised care home staff for failing to follow procedure during coronavirus.
As a GP on the front line of COVID-19 care and an out-of-hours medic, I have a unique insight on how care homes have dealt with this most alarming pandemic.
Instead of a rating of ‘could do better’, my suggestion would be that care professionals have done a good job, with an A* for effort.
Of all the key workers, I would argue that care workers have been the most forgotten and faced some of the biggest challenges, whether they be working in a care home or at a domestic dwelling looking after someone’s loved one. I have seen care home staff break down in tears because they have lost a resident. To them, they are part of the family, and everything is done to try to protect them.
A fight for recognition
First of all, the clamour for PPE was one which the public embraced, but only on behalf of colleagues in the health service. Too often, care staff were second best (even when the weekly applause rang out and the free hot drinks were served up by local coffee shops), especially in the provision of protective equipment. The social care charities that are supposed to be part of that joined-up approach with health that we hear so much about, were frankly ignored.
When I heard that Bolton-based Lagan’s Foundation – who go into the homes of children with heart defects – were seeking PPE from Eastern Europe, I was appalled at the lengths they were forced to go to. And they weren’t alone.
That’s not the only issue our care workers are tackling that puts them and those they care for in mortal peril. Managers within the NHS talk frequently about ‘occupancy’ – and with good reason. The number of beds within our hospitals has dwindled due to austerity; and breaking rules by staging more beds risks the transmission of deadly hospital infections such as MRSA.
Hospitals are therefore sometimes a little zealous about discharging patients, and leaving us in the community to pick up the tab. It was no different with coronavirus. I would like to see a full and frank enquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic that includes details on how many patients were sent into or back to care homes without being tested for COVID-19.
Government’s laissez-faire attitude to the vulnerable also affected the homeless. I wrote to the Prime Minister at the start of lockdown to ask that screening be introduced, and that homeless people be given protection against COVID-19. They are the most vulnerable group in society, with a life expectancy of around 45 years of age. Answer came there none. Meanwhile generous members of the public did what they could and caring charities, still scrambling around for PPE, disseminated the donations.
Our vulnerable population are being cared for by a workforce that is largely paid minimum wage, often at the close or beginning of their careers. We ought to think more about a pathway into the social care profession, including nursing in social care. The NHS has surgeons who began their life in healthcare as hospital volunteers who were then guided all the way through the educational journey, eventually ending in medical training. Where is this structured pathway for social care staff?
Care staff should be saluted
Instead of smearing care staff, Government should be looking at the pressures employees are under and recognising the innovation and considerable compassion shown by our colleagues. I have lost valued colleagues to COVID-19 and, along with other GPs, have seen that their memory has been honoured. But along with the medics, the bus drivers, taxi drivers and community nurses, care staff should be saluted for their ultimate sacrifice and be rewarded with higher wages and more respect.
As for the failure to observe procedure, well, I have not seen it. Like with every emergency situation, we can all learn lessons after the event, but my observation is that residential care staff are working in a desperately tough environment and yet at management and employee level are demonstrating the very best in care.
There have been many jibes thrown around since the Prime Minister’s protestations – not least ‘coward’. Here is mine. Do not criticise what you have never seen. A proper visit to a care home might just surprise you, Mr Johnson. Stop believing the very occasional horror story, and see that, like our nurses and our paramedics, care home staff do a heroic job – especially at a time of crisis.