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Covid-19 deaths in care homes top 10,000 – but how did they happen?

Coronavirus in care homes - what went wrong? Credit: PA/ITV News

Today we learnt that the number of deaths in care homes involving Covid-19 had topped 10,000 across the UK.

With the majority of those in care aged over 85, that amounts to almost a million years of life brought to a close by coronavirus.

And yet it happened in just a matter of weeks.

ITV News has been tracking the crisis in care right from the very start, when just a handful of Covid-19 cases had been reported across the UK.

Here, we draw together all of our reporting over the past two months to assess what went wrong.

Preparing for the Pandemic

Social carers are being forced to don hazmat suits to ensure they're safe from coronavirus.

In early March, just as the virus was spreading, so too was the panic in the care sector.

One provider joked to me at the time that the only PPE they’d seen was ‘poor preparation for the epidemic’.

It would prove to be a devastating description of reality.

On March 12th, we filmed with one domiciliary care company as they desperately scrambled for protective clothing.

Their regular suppliers had already run out, and with PPE diverted to the NHS, the manager was resorting to buying face masks and hand towels on Ebay.

Three weeks later, we returned. By now, the company was already treating residents with Covid-19.

Yet all they’d received from the government was 300 face masks, despite carrying out 24,000 visits a week.

They’d managed to buy some PPE of their own, at a cost of over £25,000.

But the manager was already at breaking point.

“We love what we do, we love our clients and we love our team, but it's such a fast moving situation that we don't feel in control”, she said.

“People really need to get behind us, not just the NHS.”

Testing

Staff and residents in care homes had to wait before blanket testing was offered. Credit: PA

In fact, at every stage of the pandemic, carers have told us they feel like ‘second class citizens’ in comparison to the NHS.

Perhaps the greatest source of bitterness is the way care homes initially helped hospitals to relieve the pressure, only to end up piling it on themselves.

We’ve heard countless tales of care providers taking in patients to clear hospital beds, only to accidentally seed Covid-19 into their own homes.

In one case, a home told us they’d received a patient from hospital with no notes, only to be told ten days later that she was Covid positive.

  • Here is how coronavirus spread through one care home:

The government insists hospital discharges into care homes have actually fallen during the pandemic, but carers say that however many patients they were asked to take, some simply hadn’t been tested.

In fact, only on April 16th was the policy changed, so that patients would be routinely screened for Covid-19 before being sent into homes.

By that point, the virus was already spreading through the sector.

And it would be another two weeks before all staff and residents in care homes were offered blanket testing.

Statistics

One care home in Peterborough left out empty chairs for the residents that have died in the pandemic.

By that stage of the pandemic, the sheer scale of the crisis was clear.

Thousands had died in care, yet even obtaining those figures had been a battle.

For weeks, carers were outraged that the deaths in their homes were not being reported in the daily data.

A survey by ITV News revealed in mid-April that 42% of homes had a suspected outbreak, yet the government was still insisting the number of homes affected at that point was only 15%.

Then, on April 28th, the statistics finally began to tell the story.

New data compiled by the Care Quality Commission revealed that hundreds were dying each day.

We filmed at one care home which usually reported two deaths a year, and was now averaging around two a week.

At Philia Lodge, carers had begun reading the final words from residents who couldn’t be at the bedside.

In Lancashire, we watched the heartbreak of relatives desperately saying their farewells through windows.

Care homes are used to goodbyes, but they’d never been said quite like this.

Losing their own

The whistleblower showed ITV News one of the disposable masks she is asked to use for a whole shift.

And it wasn’t just residents dying.

By April, carers had begun to fall seriously ill with the virus too.

Some blamed a continued lack of PPE, with one whistleblower revealing to us how they’d been given just one disposable face mask per day, when the masks are supposed to be changed every few hours.

Others had been asked to move into homes full time to tackle the crisis, putting themselves at risk around the clock.

By mid-May, 131 care workers had died.

A survey for ITV News revealed that 70% of their colleagues feared others would die too.

Many who’d who’d dedicated their lives to care, were now in desperate need of it themselves.

Funding

The Comberton care home in Dudley was relying on donations of things like visors to help it through the Covid-19 crisis.

And yet there would be another cost of Covid-19.

As the virus emptied beds, bank balances began to be cleared out too.

Having spent thousands on staffing and PPE, homes were now losing fees as residents passed away, with many already struggling with tight margins before the pandemic.

Despite the Government having promised £3.2bn to help with the costs of coronavirus, in early May we reported how some councils were failing to pass the money on.

A week later, after thousands of residents had already lost their lives, some began losing their homes.

We named Friary Lodge as the first to close, with the manager sending a letter to residents asking them all the move out by the end of the month due to the pressures of Covid-19.

Conclusion

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

It does now appear that deaths in care homes have passed the peak.

But the questions continue about how they ever climbed so high.

The answers may well lie in much of our reporting on the lack of testing and PPE, as well as the early discharges from hospitals.

But this pandemic also raises far bigger questions for us all in the months ahead. Why do we value social care less than health care?

The sector began this crisis facing huge risk, but little recognition.

And while thousands now grieve for their relatives, the tears of our carers tell a tale of their own.