As the headlines regarding Dominic Cummings’ accusations of government failure continued to reverberate around the news cycle yesterday (Thursday 27 May 2021), I was contacted by ITV national news and asked to comment in an interview.
There’s a limit to what you can get across in a 10 minute slot, and as I thought about it afterwards, I realised I needed to reflect more.
I don’t have a particular political agenda. I bat neither for Mr Cummings nor the government.
What I’m interested in is excellence of care, the lessons we need to learn, and how to effect change.
In essence, Mr Cummings has accused the government of abject failure in its early response to the Covid pandemic, with the issue of care homes part of that. From my perspective, whatever his motives, he has told it how it was, and his comments came as no surprise. From first-hand experience, it was woefully apparent to us at the time that management of the crisis was poor, and the government’s political strategy was weak. This had devastating practical and personal consequences, and thousands of elderly people in care homes died as a result.
It is a year since we were losing a resident a day Pelham House from Covid-19. From my experience in the frontline, there are three areas of failure in the government’s handling of Covid and social care.
Testing was a disaster. Getting hold of test kits was an uphill struggle for months. It was only once Covid hit our home that we were able to get enough kits to allow comprehensive testing, and then only enough for once a week.
When we ran out, and requested more, we were told we had exceeded our quota, and no more were available. We were without means of testing for nearly seven weeks over the summer of 2020.
I understand that this was a challenge across the board, but in my view the overall management of these scarce but essential resources was poor.
Discharge from hospital
The government’s policy was to protect the NHS. We know this. Care homes, at least to begin with, barely appeared on the radar. Around 25 thousand people were discharged from hospital into care homes. Matt Hancock has claimed they were tested. Maybe some were. But it was immaterial, as they were discharged before the results were known. Positive, negative? No-one knew, yet there was a policy of sending people into care homes where some of the people most susceptible to the virus should have been safe. And it was a death sentence. People died as a result.
To me, that is not merely wilful negligence. It is criminal. Yet that was government policy.
It gives a lie to the whole concept of the ‘protective ring’ around care homes. This was pure rhetoric, and there was no tangible protection that any of us in the front line could see.
I don’t suppose we will ever know the truth of the government’s agenda in terms of elderly people. But protecting them certainly didn’t appear to be a priority. Indeed, some our experience suggested the opposite, that the government appeared determined to expose the elderly to risk of harm. Only those on the inside know the truth, and questions need to be asked how far it was accepted that some, possibly many, people would die as a result of policy.
In researching the book, ‘Failures of State: the inside story of Britain’s battle with coronavirus’ the authors spoke to doctors and scientists who told them that their instructions were not to prioritise people over 65 for ventilation. Elderly people would not be ventilated, and were effectively being written off and sentenced to death.
I wonder whether the government will ever come out and tell us what their agenda was. It seems unlikely.
Communication and guidance.
We’d seen signs of trouble way before we actually got hit by Covid (May 2020), and found the co-ordination and handling of elderly care in general appalling.
You could see the chaos in the conflicting and overwhelming guidance that was coming out, almost every day, demonstrating panic and confusion rather than clear strategy. You just have to compare the death rate in the UK with other countries where leadership was stronger to see the impact it had.
So is Dominic Cummings telling the truth? In my view, he is exposing exactly what we on the frontline already knew, because we’d lived through it.
So what’s next?
A full enquiry in to the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK is a must.
But I’d like to reflect more specifically on the social care sector. Things need to change, and not just in terms of government, but in the whole of society.
This wasn’t just our story, many homes suffered as much, if not worse, than we did. And let’s not forget that adult social care is about more than care homes. Residential care was an easy focus, but there are areas of social care which have had no light is shone on them so far. What happened in domiciliary care across the country? What happened to elderly people fending for themselves at home? I doubt it’s a happy story.
How are we going to look after our elderly people better in the future?
It should never again be possible to write off a whole section of society just because they are old. The government, perhaps, thought they could get away with it because no-one would care. If that is true, then we are all at fault and we all need to change our mindset towards valuing our older people.
The importance of social care needs to be better recognised, and more appreciation given for the hard work that so many people put in to care for the elderly. And the people we care for need to be valued and recognised, rather than hidden away.
If any of this is to happen, social care first needs to look at itself. The sector needs to find a new and louder voice, to work more effectively together to make our voice heard and push against the barriers. As a sector, we are fragmented, yet we need collaborate more, refocus and find a new way forward.