The 'forgotten frontline': Care home workers and relatives' anguish in battle against coronavirus

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Care homes are often used to goodbyes. But they’ve never been said quite like this.

At Kenyon Lodge, Deborah Butterworth comforts her mother through an open window. Inside, the 89 year-old has suspected Covid-19.

“All I want to do is give her a hug. I can’t touch her, can’t hold her hand… it’s terrible, it’s awful,” she told me.

Nobody is allowed inside the care home, and understandably so. It houses some of the most vulnerable to this virus. Two residents have already died - including the UK’s oldest victim aged 108 - and at least another eight here have fallen ill.

That means residents are now largely confined to their rooms, with doors closed and the social area silent. Visitors are not permitted, even if someone is dying from coronavirus. The only way to communicate is over the phone, or through a window.

We were given exclusive access to film safely at the site, where staff passed us pictures from inside and spoke to us through doorways.

Several were clearly shaken by what they’ve seen and by the trauma of watching residents die alone.

Deborah Butterworth speaks to her 89-year-old mother through the glass of the Kenyon Lodge care home. Credit: ITV News

One told us: “We deal with it one day at a time and try and support our residents… tell them there’s nothing to be scared of, sit with them if they need us to talk to them.”

The carers also run their own risk. The home faces a daily battle to get hold of PPE, with one manager spending 75% of her time just trying to track down supplies. Thankfully they do now have enough masks, gloves and aprons to keep their staff safe, but at cost of many thousands of pounds.

In fact, all the government has sent is a couple of boxes of supplies, with carers telling us they often feel like an afterthought.

The manager at the Kenyon Care Home, Sarah Willetts, told us: “Carers and nurses in this sector have felt like second class citizens.

“I think it was telling in this last week when certain carers tried to go shopping in supermarkets and they were told because they weren’t NHS workers they weren’t able to.

“I just don’t think that helps with morale.”

Staff at the care home have been working around the clock to make sure the facility is as clean as possible. Credit: ITV News

What’s concerning the dozens of carers we’ve spoken to even more is that they struggle to get tested. That means many are having to self-isolate with symptoms, unable to work, while others have no idea whether they’re taking the virus into homes with them.

The Managing Director at Wellburn Care Homes, Rachel Beckett, who is also battling an outbreak of Covid-19, says the care sector isn’t being prioritised.

“We strongly feel we are the forgotten sector in this, we have nothing but respect for the NHS but we are supporting them and we are the second front line for the most vulnerable in society and we are just not getting the same treatment.”

The government says it will soon roll out testing to carers, but only after NHS staff and with no indication of timescales.

And with many care homes dealing with a similar number of Covid-19 patients as some hospital wards, right now carers feel they’re on the forgotten front line.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "We’re doing everything we can to support care homes, their workers and residents in what is a very challenging time for them.

“The Health and Social Care Secretary has been clear that we will be extending our testing of NHS staff members to their family members, followed by social care and other key workers and then the population as a whole.

“Public Health England and NHS England lab testing capacity is also prioritised for hospitalised patients, outbreak investigations in settings such as care homes and prisons, and healthcare workers where there is capacity.”

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know