A few days ago, I was interviewed again on BBC Radio Kent. It was one of several live interviews I’ve been asked to give since my care home, Pelham House, was struck by Covid after we’d successfully managed to keep it out for nearly 3 months into the first wave.
One of the questions I was asked was about how many of our residents and staff had been vaccinated by that point (14 January).
I had a very simple answer.
None. Not a single one of our residents had received a Covid vaccination as of 14 January 2021.
It was 21 January before we heard anything about vaccinations for our residents.
This is despite government and media headlines announcing successful acceleration of the Covid vaccination programme. It defied an NHS expectation that all care home residents in England should be vaccinated by 24 January at the very latest.
Although by time of publishing our vaccinations are underway, we’re far from the only care home in our area to have been in this position.
What does this mean for us?
We’re not unrealistic, and we are fully aware of the enormous challenge facing GPs in the race to vaccinate the population.
But when we see headlines claiming success, and announcing that they are now ready to lower the age group for vaccination, without any of our residents having been contacted, let alone vaccinated, we feel, well, deflated.
More than that, we’re scared. Scared for our residents, our staff and our families. I’m currently not personally able to go into the home that I own – I live outside the local area, and I and several members of my family tested positive for Covid ourselves recently (as a result, we believe, of our children contracting it at school). But I’m in constant contact with my team there.
We’ve had no cases since the summer of 2020 (when we lost 50% of our residents to the virus after one resident our local hospital insisted on discharging tested positive).
Why are we so concerned?
So we’ve been in a stable position, and have even been able to admit a few new residents in recent months. We’d become more confident that we were managing the risks effectively, and news that the vaccine was on its way lifted our hearts. But now we’re fearful and apprehensive. Like care homes everywhere, we operate under stringent infection control protocols, but Covid is out there in the community, and we’re in Kent, where the new variant is rife, so every day is a risk.
We are desperate not to lose any more of our residents to this virus. Our staff are on the edge, scared of bringing the virus into the home despite their best efforts, and scared of taking it home to their families. And as a business, we would not survive another outbreak like the one we suffered in 2020.
So when I read headlines like this one in the FT (18 January 2021): UK vaccination rollout a rare pandemic success https://www.ft.com/content/cdfb7b28-8306-4db2-8dd6-4f85a92b1778, I can’t help but feel intense frustration that, once again, care homes appeared to be at the bottom of the list.
And indeed, just a day later, came reports of the rising death toll in care homes once again: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/19/covid-related-deaths-in-care-homes-in-england-jump, surely not coincidence when coupled with this news, also from the 18 January. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/18/as-many-as-six-in-10-uk-care-home-residents-still-awaiting-covid-jab.
What needs to change?
Don’t misunderstand me. As a former NHS manager myself, I am well aware of the challenges faced, of what an incredible job frontline NHS staff have been doing, and intend no criticism of GPs tasked with delivering the vaccine. Supplies are erratic or non-existent, and the goal-posts are constantly shifting.
I believe, though, that much of this situation for care homes stems from elderly care in the UK having suffered for decades from being the ‘ugly duckling’ of social care. Care for our elderly remains largely invisible to the general public until it becomes a matter of personal need, or an attention-grabbing bad news story hits the headlines. Under-funded and swept under the carpet by successive governments, the care home sector struggles at the best of times.
What we experienced
During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, care homes were either ignored, or viewed as convenient places for hospitals to discharge patients in order to free up ward space. There appeared to be little regard for the consequent dangers to residents or staff.
As a sector, we have been criticised by government for Covid-related deaths, as though we were at fault, while the commitment and sacrifices made by many staff in many homes across the country went largely unrecognised.
When problems arose, like they did at Pelham House, we reached out to our local authorities for help, having been told that support would, eventually, be forthcoming. What I experienced was the very opposite of help and support. Put into special measures, with no guidance as to what action needed to be taken, Pelham came within weeks of being forced to close. With 50% occupancy and no prospect of taking in more residents, it was no longer financially sustainable.
I’d like to be able to say that this response was due to extraordinary circumstances. Sadly, though, in my experience it has become all too common to feel that the organisations who regulate and control the care sector are working against, rather than with us.
Of course, regulation and quality control are paramount in a sector responsible for the care of some of our most vulnerable people. That is indisputable. But, increasingly, we feel unsupported, and at times, even bullied by the organisations responsible for regulating us.
Why we need to speak out
There are excellent organisations, such as the National Care Association (https://nationalcareassociation.org.uk/) who provide a voice at the highest levels. But I also believe that the owners of care homes and home care business focussed on providing outstanding care for the elderly need to develop a louder voice within the social care sector.
It’s time that care for the elderly emerged from behind closed doors (even though the physical doors may need to remain closed for some time to protect our elderly people from Covid). We in our sector need to speak out more strongly for those who can’t speak for themselves due to frailty, dementia or other age-related concerns. We have a duty to them, and to our staff who care for them on a daily basis, to come together and address the level of ageism that permeates our society and which I believe is largely responsible for the attitudes of government towards our sector.
Shall we begin to find our voice by talking to one another about our recent experiences?
Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash