The social care sector has been battling COVID-19 for months now and support from Government has been trickling through to shore up providers and staff.
It’s been a persistent worry for all of us – not just our dedicated health and social care professionals – how can we better protect ourselves against a threat we cannot see, smell or touch? How can we know who has coronavirus, including whether we do ourselves?
For those working tirelessly in the nation’s care homes, where social distancing has its own unique challenges, this concern has loomed large since the earliest days of lockdown. There’s no way of stopping all of our worries, but we know that one way to help is through the continual expansion of our testing capability.
The more health and care staff we can test for COVID-19 – and who come up negative – the greater their peace of mind and the sooner they can return to caring for others safely. For those testing positive, they can isolate sooner to reduce the spread and receive the treatment and support they need to recover.
That’s why it’s so important that the Government is now rolling out whole care home testing to all adult care homes in England.
From the beginning, we have prioritised those groups most at risk from infection. Now that we’ve met the 6th June target of offering tests to every care home caring for over-65s, and those with dementia, we can significantly expand provision.
Since the launch of whole care home testing, we have provided over one million test kits to more than 9,000 care homes, and now have distribution networks in place to send out more than 50,000 test kits a day. This service will benefit residents and staff in over 6,000 more care homes.
We are continuing to explore how we can support other parts of the sector, such as those in supported living settings, extra care settings and domiciliary care, and of course anyone with suspected coronavirus symptoms in these settings can now access testing by self-referral.
Opening up whole care home testing to all homes, regardless of whether people there are displaying symptoms, means we can prevent and control outbreaks and protect the most vulnerable. We are confident this also means more staff can resume normal family lives and get back to the work they love.
Setting the sector up for the future
But it’s not only about testing – coronavirus is a challenge being tackled on multiple fronts. We continue to provide support to the whole social care sector, which is why we have set up a new taskforce, with representatives from across government and the care sector, headed up by Chair, David Pearson.
This taskforce will help oversee the implementation of the government’s social care action plan and care home support package. Its priority mission is to help end transmission of the disease in our communities and plan robust next steps to support the sector through the next year.
Care homes, like the NHS, have been on the frontline from the beginning. We are determined that managers and staff have everything they need to keep themselves and their residents safe. And across the wider care home sector, I believe we can be cautiously optimistic. The frequency of new outbreaks and deaths continues to decline thanks to the dedication, expertise and compassion of staff throughout the country.
However, the virus remains a clear and present risk to residents. That’s why the government has maintained its focus on protecting both residents and care workers with a comprehensive package of targeted support.
In April, we released the Adult Social Care Action Plan which set out how we will help people receiving adult social care through this current health crisis.
We have now provided £3.2bn to local councils to help them manage the pandemic’s impact, an unprecedented level of additional financial support in recent times.
In a further boost to the care sector, last month we issued a new Care Homes Support Package, supported by a £600m Infection Control Fund, setting out the steps needed to keep residents safe. We also explained how national and local government would collaborate to help care home managers put the plan into practice as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Named NHS clinical support leads have been assigned to every care home, part of the additional clinical resource pledged for residential care.
New digital portals for care managers to order testing kits and PPE supplies for staff and residents are already coming online to help speed, delivery and use.
In terms of day-to-day care home activities, the package includes advice on limiting staff movement to reduce infection risk further – although care homes have already been adapting brilliantly to this new way of working.
Additional staff training is also being given on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), infection control and testing advice.
This all adds up to a comprehensive, person-centred and responsive support programme designed to protect and provide peace of mind to all care home staff, residents and families, wherever and whoever they are.
Taking care of staff
Peace of mind will often be preceded by time off work for staff who do have the misfortune to test positive. This creates potential problems with staffing levels. To offset staff shortages, a re-energised adult social care recruitment campaign, Care for others; make a difference, is running across TV and radio right now, to attract newly-trained staff into the sector to support the existing workforce.
Fully staffed or not, these are difficult times for health and care workers, and we know how vital it is to maintain their mental, as well as physical, health. The Samaritans have extended their helpline service to all care workers. Anyone feeling the strain can speak to a trained adviser and be signposted to support services.
Hospice UK is also extending its bereavement and trauma support hotline to those working in the care sector, with specialist counsellors available to support staff who have experienced stress or anxiety through their work. The recently launched CARE app features additional support links.
This is the hardest thing many of us have ever lived through, but I also know so many people have been doing the most extraordinary and wonderful things. The compassion and commitment of care workers goes above and beyond. On my part, I want there to be all the possible support for care workers and care providers that there can be, so no one feels they have been left to cope alone. Together, we will get through this.
Helen Whately is Minister of State (Minister for Care) at the Department of Health and Social Care. Twitter: @Helen_Whately
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