Care homes used as 'dumping ground' for hospital patients during coronavirus pandemic, whistleblowers reveal

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

In a new series, Coronavirus: What Happened, ITV News looks at the decisions the government made during the early stages of the pandemic, examining issues such as why vulnerable residents in care homes were put at serious risk, why health care workers struggled to obtain vital protective equipment, and why the UK did not increase virus testing capacity much earlier than it did.

When they house our oldest and our frailest, it is perhaps no surprise that it is care settings where Covid-19 often makes itself most at home.

But one of the biggest questions of the pandemic is who exactly has been letting it in.

For months, we've been hearing from homes who claim the virus was spread from hospitals via discharged patients who weren't initially tested.

Now, for the first time, health workers have chosen to speak up for their colleagues in care and corroborate their stories.

ITV News has interviewed three whistleblowers in the NHS, who claim that care homes were used as a "dumping ground" during the early weeks of the pandemic.

Each of the men transported patients and they all say they drove down demand for hospital beds by taking people into care homes. 

Care homes were a 'dumping ground'...

The pressure to do so was there in writing; on March 17 NHS England wrote to trusts telling them to clear 30,000 beds ready for the pandemic.

And on April 2, government guidance said there was no need to provide a negative test before discharging those patients into care homes.

Speaking anonymously, the three health workers told us they believe both sets of instructions were a deadly mistake.

Also from the Coronavirus: What Happened series

One of the men says he transported up to 200 patients in the early weeks of the pandemic - the other two were taking dozens each week.

All three said those patients were often showing signs of coronavirus, despite not having been tested.

"Some of them you could tell if they were sweating, if there was coughing", one told us, "and when we'd get to the nursing homes they'd say 'are they positive?' and we'd say 'I don't know'."

'Nursing homes would ask 'are they positive?' We would say 'I don't know'...

Throughout the pandemic the government denied there was a push to discharge patients to create capacity in hospitals.

But data leaked to ITV News from one trust - Barts, in London - shows a steep rise in the percentage of patients being discharged into care homes at the outset of the pandemic.

In fact, the number doubled from mid-March to early April.

One of the whistleblowers works for Barts NHS Trust and told us, "As soon as we dropped a patient off, that was it, there was another one on the system.

"We were being pushed to take them quicker and quicker. They would be ringing you up saying 'How long are you going to be?'"

By mid-April hundreds were dying in care each day in England - 15,000 have died in total.

But Covid-positive patients are still being discharged into homes.

Last week, ITV News revealed a leaked email from Middlesbrough Council, asking homes to prepare to take a second wave of patients with the virus.

Both the council and the government insist that no home will be forced to accept Covid-positive patients, but nevertheless the request has created further dread across an already traumatised sector. 

Countless carers have told us they felt like the "Cinderella service" during the first wave of Covid-19, with homes coming second to healthcare in terms of testing, PPE and emergency funding.

One carer named Sandie told ITV News her home felt "very pressurised" to take in patients who were showing coronavirus symptoms.

Care homes faced a similar risk to hospitals from Covid-19, yet at the outset, were given almost no recognition.

"I have to look at it that they threw the elderly to one side", one whistleblower said, "it's the only way I can actually deal with it. Because if not it was total stupidity." 

'I have to look at it that they threw the elderly to one side'...

Eddie Coombes, CEO at care provider Optima Care, told ITV News he believes "a lot of unnecessary deaths" were caused by the discharge policy.

He said: "I think it was really atrocious because rightly so a lot of focus was on the NHS because it's the primary point of care when people get sick and it was absolutely right to make beds available but in reality the care homes and social care should have been absolutely part of that emergency planning."

"Care homes were an afterthought," he added.

So if that's what happened then, what happens now?

For a start, several important things have changed.

All patients are now routinely tested before being discharged from hospitals into care homes.

Carers will also receive PPE from the government as part of a winter care plan which will provide £546m of extra funding to help homes with infection control.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told me: "We know that it's vital that people are tested when they leave hospital, that's one of the things that we've learnt. And that's in place now so that the right isolation procedures can be put in place."

That is the first admission I've heard from him that lessons needed to be learnt, having spent much of the pandemic insisting that a "protective ring" had been placed around care.

If there was any protective ring, then many homes did not feel its embrace.

In fact, the lessons learnt from the first wave aren't just practical issues about discharging and testing.

The most important thing we've all been taught is that care must no longer be perceived as a secondary service - after all the virus does not discriminate between home and hospital.

More reporting on the coronavirus crisis in care homes from Paul Brand: