Care homes forced to shut after 'significant' number of Covid outbreaks with hundreds stuck in hospital

By Helena Vesty

A ‘significant’ number of coronavirus outbreaks within care homes across Greater Manchester has led to sites being shut down to hundreds of patients stuck in hospitals, currently awaiting discharge.

Just like their hospital counterparts, staff on the frontline of the region’s social care sector have been hit by the Omicron wave.

A workforce already depleted by historic shortages is facing further depletion, as the new variant takes root in Greater Manchester in what health chiefs are describing as a 'perfect storm'.

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The new variant, initially more dominant among a younger population more likely to socialise, has found its way into care homes.

In their droves, staff are testing positive or isolating after being in contact with someone who already has, and outbreaks within care homes themselves have followed.

The exponential spread has now seen a ‘significant number of outbreaks resulting in homes closed to admission’, Greater Manchester health bosses have confirmed.

Care homes shutting their doors

“Social care in Greater Manchester is facing a challenged picture," read a briefing on the latest pressures on the health and care system, issued by the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership on Friday, January 7.

"The reasons for this are related to reduced staffing due to sickness, isolation or awaiting test results as well as a significant number of outbreaks resulting in homes closed to admission."

The government vowed on Wednesday to invest £60m in social care this month, but that's yet to reach the front line (PA)

The percentage of care home residents in Greater Manchester with Covid or suspected Covid has jumped from 0.9 per cent to 4.7 per cent in two weeks.

Although well below rates seen in the wider population and, anecdotally, leading largely to mild cold-like symptoms, the new wave has resulted in rocketing absence among staff forced into self-isolation.

Although staff absence in the wake of Omicron is a concern across the public sector workforce, care homes have been plagued with chronic shortages for decades, while still needing strict staffing ratios to care for residents safely.

Even before Covid hit, nationally there were 122,000 vacant posts in a 1.4m-strong workforce. In Greater Manchester, there were estimated to be 3,200 vacancies among 64,000 care workers.

Now, adding to that, absence rates are thought to be as much as 1 in 5 care staff.

More than 600 patients stuck in Greater Manchester hospitals

The closures come at a time when there are hundreds of patients, medically fit for discharge, stuck in hospitals across the region due to the lack of social care available.

As of the latest updates, some 659 people medically fit to leave hospital can be in hospital for days, if not weeks, waiting to leave, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told a press conference on Wednesday.

Staffing shortages within social care mean there are not enough people to look after those needing support once they leave their hospital bed, while ‘half of Greater Manchester’s care homes’ are unable to take any new residents needing more full-time support, added Burnham.

Meanwhile, desperation for beds is reaching new heights, as bed occupancy rates remain at extreme levels and admissions skyrocket.

In Greater Manchester, bed occupancy ‘is in the late high 90th percentile and demand for care remains exceptionally high’, the briefing says.

Anything over 85 per cent is understood to be greatly concerning for hospital staff.

Financial strain

Financially, many homes are also now struggling under the burden of Covid.

Forced to pay for agency staff as well as funding those who are self-isolating; the cash they received from the Infection Control Fund (ICF) has run out, home staff have told the Manchester Evening News this week.

The government vowed on Wednesday to invest £60m in social care this month, but that's yet to reach the front line.

What are the solutions?

At a press conference on Wednesday, Mayor Andy Burnham appealed to the government to turn its 'urgent attention' to staffing in social care. Describing the situation as 'precarious', he's warned of the knock-on impact on the NHS.

Omicron has brought huge delays for PCR test results from labs swamped by demand, preventing staff from going back to work until they have a negative test. It's hoped the relaxation of testing protocol and increased acceptance of lateral flow tests in the self-isolation process will ease up pressure.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham (ASP)

“Work is underway to provide mutual aid across Greater Manchester, including sourcing lateral flow testing kits to support staff to return to work,” continued the briefing.

“Staff recruitment campaigns are active across Greater Manchester, and where needed agency staff are recruited to support in the short-term.

“All care home workers and anyone entering a care home to provide a service are now required to be fully vaccinated, unless medically exempt or exempt via a very limited number of other reasons.”

Sarah Price, interim chief officer of Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “We are anticipating this January to be one of the toughest the NHS and social care has faced yet.

“High levels of demand for care, rising Covid-19 admissions to hospital and high levels of staff sickness have created a perfect storm. The situation is challenging and likely to get worse in the coming days; though we know that staff here will, as they always have, go above and beyond to respond to the current crisis; and we need to support them to do so.

“We ask the public to please play their part in helping reduce the pressure on Greater Manchester services by protecting themselves from Covid-19 with the first, second and booster vaccines - which are the best defence against becoming seriously ill from the virus.

“We know that when faced with a situation where you or a loved one is unwell, it’s not always easy to know where to get help. If you need urgent help but it isn’t an emergency, please use NHS 111.

“If you can access and are confident using the internet, visit 111.nhs.uk, otherwise please call the service free on 111 and a trained advisor will help.”

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