Coronavirus: Outbreaks in care homes could undermine Boris Johnson’s lockdown changes, warns scientist

Ross McGuinness
·4-min read
BOREHAMWOOD, ENGLAND - MAY 06: Right At Home care worker Sarah Cox visits client Patricia Taylor at her home during the coronavirus pandemic on May 06, 2020 in Borehamwood, England. Sarah Cox continues to work during the coronavirus pandemic, visiting clients in their own homes to help with daily personal care routines. She has been provided with full Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) by her employer. The UK is continuing quarantine measures intended to curb the spread of Covid-19, but the infection rate is falling, and government officials are discussing the terms under which it would ease the lockdown. (Photo by Karwai Tang/Getty Images)
There are fears that COVID-19 outbreaks in the social care sector could undermine the easing of the UK's lockdown. (Getty Images)

Coronavirus outbreaks in care homes could undermine the government’s move to ease the UK’s lockdown, a scientist has warned.

On Sunday, Boris Johnson announced a range of new measures to take the UK out of its COVID-19 lockdown.

However, the prime minister’s televised address was criticised by scientists, opposition politicians and workers’ unions, who called it vague and confusing.

The government was scrambling on Monday to provide more clarity on the new measures, which come into force on Wednesday.

In his speech, Johnson announced that people who cannot work from home should return to their workplaces, but avoid public transport.

The government says Britons can meet one person from another household in a park if they keep two metres apart, although there was confusion on Monday when foreign secretary Dominic Raab suggested they could meet two people at once.

The public will be allowed to drive to parks and beaches, with no limit on the distance travelled.

But Johnson was accused of not paying enough attention to the situation in care homes in his speech.

“A major area that was not adequately addressed was the issue of the epidemic in care homes,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.

LONDON, ENGLAND  - MAY 11: British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, takes a walk in St. James park in the morning ahead of meeting with Parliament later in the day on May 11, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. The prime minister announced the general contours of a phased exit from the current lockdown, adopted nearly two months ago in an effort curb the spread of Covid-19. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson takes a walk in St James's Park in London on Monday, the day after he addressed the nation. (Getty Images)

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the epidemic in care homes is the Achilles heel in the UK’s ability to control this epidemic.

“It may well be that whatever we do or do not do in moving out of lockdown could be undermined from spread back into the community from care home outbreaks. This issue has to be higher up the UK’s priority.”

Prof Hunter said Johnson’s statement “left a lot of questions unanswered”.

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He said there is an issue with how the government’s “broad statements” are interpreted by the public.

Dr Rupert Beale, from the Cell Biology of Infection Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute, said: “I am concerned that confused messaging might lead people to relax their efforts too soon.

“It’s imperative that a really effective testing, tracing and isolation system is working before any significant change to the rules takes place.”

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Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released on Monday showed that people working in social care, including care workers and home carers, have "significantly" higher death rates involving COVID-19 than the working population as a whole.

For male social care workers in England and Wales, the rate of death involving COVID-19 is estimated to be 23.4 deaths per 100,000 males, while for female social care workers the figure is 9.6, the ONS said.

By contrast, for all males of working age (20 to 64 years old), the rate of death involving COVID-19 is 9.9 deaths per 100,000, with 5.2 deaths per 100,000 females.

Nicola Richards, director of Palms Row Health Care in Sheffield, said the social care sector is “on a cliff edge”, with homes across the UK facing closure as they spend an extra £38.6m per week on COVID-19 costs.

She said 18 residents have died in outbreaks at two of her three homes, and 60 residents have tested positive.

She said: "We're on a cliff edge. The sector that's been hit the hardest, ultimately is the one that's most at risk now.

"It just feels it's almost immoral, unethical that potentially the staff that have worked through this are potentially at risk of losing jobs. I can't explain how hard that feels."

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