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More than a fifth of care home beds in England now unfilled

More than a fifth of care home beds in England are now unfilled after public confidence in the sector was shattered during pandemic

  • ONS data shows just 77.8% of care home beds taken in the year to March 2022
  • The figure is down from 84.7% beds occupied before the Covid pandemic
  • Bosses warn levels are struggling to recover because of Covid hit confidence

Nearly one in four care home beds in England are now empty as people seek out home care instead, official figures show.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows just 77.8 per cent of spaces in care homes were taken in the year to March 2022 — meaning more than 100,000 beds were vacant.

The figure, based on occupancy data from more than two-thirds of care homes in the country, is down from 84.7 per cent of beds being full in the year before the pandemic.

The decline reflects more Britons opting to receive care in their own home after tens of thousands of excess deaths were logged in homes during the Covid crisis, which providers say shattered peoples’ confidence in the sector.

Ministers were accused of feeding care homes ‘to the wolves’ after discharging NHS patients into the sector without testing them for Covid in the early days of the pandemic.

The move was widely seen as a driving factor behind the outbreak in care homes that saw more than 20,000 elderly residents die during the first wave.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows just 77.8 per cent of spaces in care homes were taken in the year to March 2022 — meaning more than 100,000 beds were vacant 

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows there were around 360,792 care home residents in England over the last year. The figure is eight per cent lower than the 391,927 people in homes in the year to March 2020. But the ONS found that the proportion of people self-funding their stay was almost identical – (34.9 per cent in the year to March 2022, compared to 36.7 per cent in the year to March 2020) 

The decline in care home demand reflects that more Britons prefer to receive care in their own home, according to charities. It also comes after tens of thousands of excess deaths were logged in care homes during the Covid crisis, which providers say knocked peoples’ confidence in going to a home. Pictured: deaths in care homes (bars) compared to the five-year average (black line)

The ONS analysed data from care homes for adults of all ages, based on data from the Care Quality Commission.

It found there were 360,792 care home residents in England over the last year, eight per cent lower than in the year to March 2020.

The fall in occupancy rates has led to some care homes receiving less income despite increased pandemic-related costs and the cost-of-living crisis. 

It comes after 45,632 Covid deaths were logged in care homes during the first two years of the pandemic.

During the first wave, 27,081 deaths were logged over and above what would be expected.

And care home residents — including vulnerable people and dementia patients — also faced visiting restrictions for almost two years throughout the pandemic. 

Care bosses warned this saw some residents ‘give up and die because they didn’t have social interaction’. 

In response to the new ONS data, the Independent Care Group (ICG), which represents providers in York and north Yorkshire, said alarm bells should be ringing as care homes ‘continue to fight for survival’. 

Mike Padgham, chair of the ICG, said: ‘Covid devastated bed occupancy – there was tragic loss of life and after its peak homes were restricted in taking new admissions as Covid breakouts continued.

‘Now, admission levels are struggling to recover because confidence has been affected.

‘At the same time, the sector is going through a staffing crisis with many providers in both care and nursing homes, and in home care, struggling to fill shifts.

‘And now rocketing bills, including gas and electric, are placing huge financial pressures on those homes.

‘All in all, this is a terrible time for the social care sector – the worst I have known in more than 33 years of providing care.’

The ONS data also shows that around one third of current care home residents are paying for their own care, while the rest are funded by the state.

The ONS said: ‘This is similar to the proportion of self- and state-funded care home residents seen before the coronavirus pandemic, although the overall care home resident population and occupancy has decreased.’

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR CARE HOMES? A TIMELINE OF FAILINGS 

Ministers were accused of feeding care homes ‘to the wolves’ after discharging NHS patients into the sector without testing them for Covid in the early days of the pandemic.

The move was widely seen as a driving factor behind the outbreak in care homes that saw more than 20,000 elderly residents die during the first wave.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report said care homes were overlooked in order to protect the NHS.

At the time, there were concerns that hospitals would be overwhelmed by the influx of Covid patients.

A NHS order went out in March 2020 instructing trusts to turf out as many patients as possible to make room for the surge – with the elderly sent into care homes.

JANUARY 2020 – SAGE scientists warn Government ‘very early on’ about the risk to care homes

Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, revealed that he and other senior scientists warned politicians ‘very early on’ about the risk Covid posed to care homes. 

Sir Patrick made the comments in April 2020 and the SAGE committee met for the first time to discuss Covid on January 22.

Sir Patrick said at the time: ‘So very early on we looked at a number of topics, we looked at nosocomial infection very early on, that’s the spread in hospitals, and we flagged that as something that the NHS needed to think about. 

‘We flagged the fact that we thought care homes would be an important area to look at, and we flagged things like vaccine development and so on. 

‘So we try to take a longer term view of things as well as dealing with the urgent and immediate areas.’

FEBRUARY 2020 – Health chiefs ignorant to outbreak risk in care homes

An early key error in the handling of the crisis was advice issued by Public Health England (PHE) on February 25.

The now defunct agency said that it remained ‘very unlikely’ people in care homes would become infected as there was ‘currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the UK’.

Yet a fortnight earlier the UK Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling committee had concluded: ‘It is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will become established in the coming weeks.’

MARCH 2020 – Hospital patients discharged to homes without tests

In March and April just shy of 25,000 people were discharged from NHS hospitals into care homes without getting tested for coronavirus.

The move came at the peak of the outbreak and has been blamed for ‘seeding’ Covid outbreaks in the homes which later became impossible to control.

NHS England issued an order to its hospitals to free up as many beds as they could, and later sent out joint guidance with the Department of Health saying that patients did not need to be tested beforehand. 

MARCH 13, 2020 — No limits on visits

PHE updated its advice for care homes asking ‘no one to visit who has suspected Covid-19 or is generally unwell’ – 

But visits were still allowed, despite what was known about asymptomatic transmission.

MARCH 26, 2020 – Hancock warned about dangers of not testing

Matt Hancock was repeatedly warned over the risk of not testing people discharged from hospitals into care homes at the start of the pandemic.

The Care Provider Alliance, which represents Britain’s care homes, said it warned the Department of Health and Social Care on March 26 that without testing care home residents ‘there is no way of knowing whether they are going to infect others’.

It also claims to have emailed the Health Secretary directly, saying: ‘All people discharged from hospital to social care settings… MUST be tested before discharge.’

Pete Calveley, the chief executive of Barchester Healthcare said that in March and April ‘we were saying absolutely no one should be discharged from hospital without a negative test’.

Smaller care home groups also said they were ‘consistently’ urging testing of discharges earlier on when it was not happening, according to reports.

MARCH/APRIL 2020 – Testing not readily available to care home residents

In March and April coronavirus tests were rationed and not available to all care home residents suspected of having Covid.

Government policy dictated that only a small sample of residents would be tested if one showed symptoms.

An outbreak would then be declared and anyone else with symptoms was presumed to be infected without a test.

Staff were not tested. The move left officials blind to outbreaks in the sector.

MARCH/APRIL 2020 – Bosses warned homes didn’t have enough PPE 

Care home bosses were furious in March and April that their staff didn’t have enough access to personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and aprons.

A letter sent from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) to the Department of Health saw the care chiefs accuse a senior figure at the Department of overseeing a ‘shambolic response’. 

Adass said it was facing ‘confusion’ and additional work as a result of mixed messaging put out by the Government.

It said the situation around PPE, which was by then mandatory for all healthcare workers, was ‘shambolic’ and that deliveries had been ‘paltry’ or ‘haphazard’.

A shortage of PPE has been a consistent issue from staff in care homes since the pandemic began, and the union Unison revealed at the beginning of May that it had already received 3,600 reports about inadequate access to PPE from workers in the sector.

APRIL 2020 – Care home deaths left out of official fatality count

The Department of Health refused to include people who had died outside of hospitals in its official daily death count until April 29, three weeks after deaths had peaked in the UK. 

It started to include the ‘all settings’ measure from that date and added on 3,811 previously uncounted Covid-19 deaths on the first day.

MAY 2020 – Hancock claims he threw ‘protective ring around care homes’

During a live Downing St press conference in early May, Mr Hancock claimed that the government had ‘thrown a protective ring around care homes’ since the start of the pandemic.

The astonishing comments came despite 20,000 residents dying to the virus at that point and widespread criticism about the handling of the crisis in the social care sector.

‘Right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes,’ the watching public was told.

‘We set out our first advice in February and, as the virus grew, we strengthened it throughout.’ 

‘We will keep working to strengthen the protective ring we have cast around all our care homes,’ Mr Hancock said.

JUNE 2020 – Damning report reveals care homes fed to wolves

The National Audit Office (NAO) report – the first independent review of preparations for the pandemic – confirmed patients were discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested – which was still disputed by ministers at the time.

The report accused the Government of prioritising the NHS over the social care sector. 

It said: ‘Due to government policy at the time, not all patients were tested for Covid-19 before discharge, with priority given to patients with symptoms.’

Chair of the public accounts committee and a Labour MP in London, Meg Hillier, said: ‘Residents and staff were an afterthought yet again: out of sight and out of mind, with devastating consequences.’

May 2021 — Cummings claimed Hancock lied about protecting care homes

Boris Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings told MPs that the then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock ‘categorically’ told the Prime Minister in March that all hospital patients would be tested before being allowed into care homes.

But he alleged that Boris Johnson was furious when he returned to office at the end of April following his near-death battle with coronavirus to discover the promise wasn’t kept.

Mr Cummings told MPs: ‘So that was one of the other things that I, that we, found shocking, that when we realised in April that this had happened, the Prime Minister said a less polite version of ‘what on earth are you telling me?’.

‘When he came back after being ill: ‘What on earth has happened with all these people in care homes? Hancock told us in the Cabinet Room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes, what the hell happened?”

Giving evidence to MPs about the Government’s catastrophic response to the Covid pandemic, Mr Cummings said he and the Prime Minister had been told ‘categorically in March that people will be tested before they went back to care homes’.

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