Callous betrayal of our most vulnerable citizens

Published by The Daily Mail (14th April, 2020)

The carnage is horrific as this hideous pandemic carves through care homes across the country, killing hundreds of residents despite the best efforts of devoted staff.

Thirteen people died with coronavirus symptoms at Stanley Park home in County Durham. Fifteen fatalities at care homes in Liverpool and Luton. Thirteen deaths at one in Glasgow, nine at another in Nottinghamshire, eight at a unit in Dumbarton.

HC-One, Britain’s biggest care home operator, has lost 311 residents and one carer from this cruel virus after seeing 2,447 suspected cases in 232 of its homes. These figures are terrifying. Behind the daily tally of cold statistics lies the agony of bereaved families and shocked tears of distraught carers, many risking their own lives to save others.

Yet the devastation of this unfolding national tragedy is also painfully predictable. It shames those politicians spouting platitudes at daily briefings who, with fatal consequences, have failed to protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. This scandal goes deep into the bedrock of our society. For, beyond the deaths and suffering on the forgotten frontline, the virus has ruthlessly exposed the appalling iniquities that must be confronted once we emerge from the darkness of pandemic.

We knew the occupants of care homes include many of those most at risk from this disease: the very old, the very sick and people with serious disabilities. They are crammed together in confined spaces – and now, with the lockdown, suddenly shut off from their loving families.

Bear in mind that while the majority of care home residents are in the twilight of life, almost one-fifth are under 65 – so the victims are not only the elderly. Whether they are elderly or disabled, people who need help with the daily basics of life cannot be totally isolated from the world. Inevitably, this increases the risk of infection – however many times those supporting them wash their hands, however much they cover their mouths.

We were given clear warnings from European nations hit before Britain as horror stories emerged from care homes of mass deaths, abandoned corpses and fleeing staff in countries such as Italy, France and Spain.

One study this week reported that care home residents comprised between 42 and 57 per cent of all deaths from this disease in five European countries.

Yet in Britain the social care sector has fallen down the list of priorities with inadequate advice offered to care teams, minimal testing for residents or staff and a grotesque failure to deliver adequate protective gear to the frontline workforce.

It is bad enough that doctors and nurses in hospital critical care units must work with coronavirus patients while lacking personal protective equipment. Yet, given the risks, surely this failure is equally as egregious in care homes and supported living?

The situation remains so dire that ten weeks after the World Health Organisation declared a global public emergency with this virus, four big charities combined this week to beg for more testing and personal protective equipment for care homes.

‘Older people’s lives are not worth less. Care home staff are not second-class carers,’ they said rightly.

You may not have realised, but Matt Hancock is Secretary of State for Health AND Social Care. There is also a Care Minister – an uninspiring former management consultant called Helen Whately, who should be replaced urgently with a weighty figure to fix these fatal failings.

When she appeared in the key slot on Radio 4’s Today, the BBC’s most important radio news programme, she was not asked once about care during a 13-minute interview, except briefly in relation to hospitals.

But ultimately blame rests with those in charge of this crisis. And it is hard to avoid a suspicion that even now the authorities are trying to duck problems – even though honesty and truth are more vital when a nation’s population is in lockdown.

Why, for instance, do we not include the deaths of citizens in care homes in the daily tally unlike countries such as France and Ireland? Either this is incompetence, wilful deception or it simply reflects an official view that these lives lack value. We have, after all, seen chilling claims of blanket ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ notices being imposed on care homes – alongside indications that older and disabled people will lose out if lifesaving critical care and ventilators have to be rationed in hospitals.

The latest Office for National Statistics data that came out yesterday, which include deaths outside hospitals, found England’s tally of coronavirus deaths to be 15 per cent higher than previously reported.

One whistleblower claimed this week that ‘in many cases’ the virus is not being listed as cause of death.

The new ONS data also indicates a significant and unexplained rise in total number of deaths above the five-year average.

There were 2,500 more fatalities than normal not attributed to Covid-19 in the week up to April 3 – which was before the recent spike in deaths from the disease and the highest since records began. This could be down to other conditions such as cancer going untreated amid the crisis. But I know one person whose elderly relative’s death was listed as dementia despite the fact he had a sudden severe cough and fever before he died.

About 410,000 people live in 11,300 care homes. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, claimed on Monday outbreaks had been recorded in 92 of them over the previous 24 hours and that there were infected residents in about one in seven care homes.

Yet MHA – a big provider with 131 care homes – said coronavirus is in half of its facilities. HC-One reports cases in two-thirds of its care homes.

Now look at the backdrop to this crisis. For we have a social care sector already in a dreadfully weakened state when struck by this disease.

Everyone knows funding is a mess. Over the past two decades there have been at least 17 white papers, green papers and state reviews of social care funding. While politicians have prevaricated and failed to take action, the care system has become broken to the point of collapse. It was savaged by austerity – unlike the sanctified NHS – as central government overloaded cuts on local authorities.

Some 1.4million older citizens were abandoned with their needs unmet. Support for people with disabilities was restricted while many more were stuffed out of sight in dismal institutions. People dying from dementia had to sell homes to fund essential care while those dying from cancer were treated at state expense.

Meanwhile, a handful of big private firms moved in like starving sharks. Often they parked big profits taken from taxpayers offshore while fatcat bosses pocketed fortunes and staff on the frontline – who are now risking their lives – were paid peanuts.

Look closer at HC-One, which has about 22,000 care home beds. A recent investigation by the Financial Times found it had paid no tax since 2011, yet it handed investors through a complex web of companies almost £50million in dividends over the past two years alone. Four Seasons, which owns the Glasgow home hit by 13 deaths, is currently in the hands of an American hedge fund after its previous owner, a prominent British private equity outfit, lost an £825million investment gamble on the group.

Barchester Healthcare, another major provider, is owned by three Irish billionaires. It quintupled profits last year and handed one of its executives a £915,000 pay package. Care UK, which runs the Stanley Park home, awarded one director £900,000, according to latest accounts.

CareTech, which has quietly become one of the biggest players in social care, paid the pair of brothers who founded it £1.7million last year while giving another £1.48million to their family in dividends after boasting in its annual report about surging company revenues.

Some firms pay team leaders with weighty responsibilities at their care homes less than £9-an-hour and crucial night staff get minimum wages. Little wonder there were 122,000 vacancies and a high churn in jobs when this crisis struck with such force.

Many of the dedicated workers are migrants – just as we are seeing with lots of the faces staring out from newspapers of doctors and nurses felled by coronavirus. Yet the Government insulted such staff by deeming them unskilled in its migration plans.

We must not flinch from hard questions in these difficult times as we look to rebuild society and strengthen preparations against any future pandemic. This virus was always going to pose a terrible threat to people in care homes. But is the devastation worse because an unloved social care system was allowed to rot behind closed doors in a callous betrayal of the country’s most vulnerable citizens?

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