Government apologises for Covid testing delays at UK care homes

Nursing home operator says results are taking seven days instead of promised 72 hours

The government has been forced to apologise for continuing delays to Covid testing, which care home bosses and GPs warn are threatening to lead to more infections among the most vulnerable people.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) admitted to breaking its promise to provide test outcomes within 72 hours, as one nursing home operator in Cheshire told the Guardian that results have taken seven days and the delay may have caused infected staff to pass the virus to a resident.

Care managers on Monday described the government’s centralised testing system as “chaotic” and “not coping” amid reports of whole batches of tests coming back not only late, but also void. One operator in Kent said they were unable to get any tests for more than three weeks and said she felt “frustration and disgust at this outrageous treatment”. Snags with the online ordering system are also common, operators said.

Testing officials told the care home by email on Monday morning: “Immediate action has been taken at the highest levels of the programme to bring results times back within 72 hours from the time of swabbing, and to reduce the number of unclear/void results, especially where these are affecting whole homes.

“We apologise unreservedly to all care homes who have been affected for the upset these issues have caused you, your residents and your staff.”

One care home in Cheshire said staff tests took seven days to come back, and when they did three workers tested positive. They were sent home but had been working for the whole week. A resident subsequently tested positive for Covid-19, leading to fears the workers may have infected the resident.

“It’s awful. It’s like Russian roulette every week,” the manager said, describing the system as chaotic. “People can’t believe it’s so slow. The general public think the testing system works fine but people can be positive and working for a week and no one knows. It’s not working at all for us.”

The government had promised regular testing for care homes by the end of July, but moved the target for weekly staff tests to 7 September citing “unexpected delays”.

In August it paused the use of home testing kits issued by Randox, one of its main commercial partners working on a £133m contract, because they did not meet safety standards. This meant other providers had to make up the shortfall. Other commercial partners include Sodexo and Deloitte.

Residents are still only promised testing once every 28 days. But the turnaround of tests remains slow and there is also growing concern that results are not reliable, with positive results one week replaced by negative results the next.

The care manager in Cheshire said that because temporary agency staff who are used to fill in for isolating staff are not routinely tested, the risk remains unchecked.

Dr Claire Barker, the GP with responsibility for the residents, said: “Most staff work all over a care home and not knowing what is happening with infection is unacceptable. It inhibits the home’s ability to control the outbreak. We can’t control outbreaks if this testing regime stays in place.”

Delays in results are thought to be caused by capacity issues at testing facilities and the government has promised to boost capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of next month, helped by a new laboratory near Loughborough. The problem has become more pronounced for care homes in the last fortnight, said Vic Rayner, the executive director of the National Care Forum. This week the government said care facilities for younger people could also get weekly testing, raising fears it could further strain the system.

Rayner highlighted another problem, which is that hundreds of care home inspectors will not be tested before going into homes to carry out regulatory checks. The Care Quality Commission told care homes it had consulted with the DHSC and its inspectors “do not meet the criteria for weekly asymptomatic testing, as inspectors are not required to undertake ‘hands on’ closer personal contact with people”.

Rayner said: “The government has spent £600m on an infection control fund to stop the social care workforce moving around and between care services, so why are they not testing this discreet cohort of inspectors who do just that – move around and between services.”

A DHSC spokesperson said: “NHS test and trace is working – hundreds of thousands people are being tested every day and to make sure we stay in control of this virus. There is a high demand for tests, and our laboratories continue to turn test results around as quickly as possible.

“We have the largest diagnostic network in British history, and we plan to rapidly expand it in the coming weeks as well as bringing in new technology to process tests faster.”

Contributor

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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