Health inspectors in England have been moving between care homes with high levels of Covid-19 infection without being tested, raising fears they have put more residents at risk of catching the virus, leaks to the Guardian have revealed.
In recent weeks all care home inspections carried out in the north of England have been of infected homes, including a facility where 38 of the 41 people receiving care and 30 staff – almost half of the workers – had tested positive, internal documents from the Care Quality Commission show.
Over the last two months inspectors have been checking infection control procedures and care standards in up to 600 care homes, many of which were dealing with outbreaks of Covid-19, but the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has yet to provide testing. The CQC said on Friday it was expecting to start testing inspectors “in the coming weeks”.
Weekly Covid deaths in care homes have been rising. In the week to 20 November, 398 people were notified to the CQC as having died from Covid, up from 138 a month earlier. The death toll remains lower than at the peak of the pandemic, when more than 2,500 people were dying a week in late April.
The situation has sparked “very real anxieties about contracting the disease” and spreading it between infected homes, the leaked memos reveal. One inspector described work to his managers as like “going into the eye of the storm”.
In a memo to staff this month, the chief inspector of social care, Kate Terroni, wrote: “Many of you are undertaking two inspections a week, knowingly going to inspect services time and again where Covid is present … I can only imagine the trepidation you experience.”
Some inspectors have been so worried that they have paid for private testing. Last month the CQC revealed six inspectors had tested positive for Covid-19.
One inspector, who requested anonymity, told the Guardian: “People using services are at great risk during this time as inspectors are being sent out to services with a high number of Covid cases, sometimes a few times a week, without knowing if they are positive or negative. I think it is dangerous to the inspectors and the homes we are visiting.”
The DHSC has argued that care home inspectors do not need routine testing as their jobs do not require close contact with residents. It has said inspectors are expected to follow proper infection control measures, including social distancing, use of PPE and hand-washing.
The CQC has been pressing the DHSC for testing for several months. One memo in October from CQC management to inspectors said: “People are still very anxious about crossing the threshold; about testing for inspectors and leaving gaps between inspections. Please be assured these subjects are discussed regularly with the DHSC.”
Ian Trenholm, the chief executive of the CQC, said on Friday that the DHSC had finally approved the start of testing, which was expected to begin early next month. He said it would be “in addition to our existing protections, where all CQC staff engaging in inspection and registration visits must undertake a risk assessment prior to the visit”.
He added: “They must use the PPE identified, have gone through training on its use, and have completed the infection prevention and control training. Where an inspector displays symptoms or a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, they are already required to self-isolate.”
The DHSC confirmed weekly PCR testing will be rolled out to CQC inspectors over the coming weeks.