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Welsh care homes were caught up in nightmare Covid “experiment”

A social care champion said care homes in Wales felt they were caught up in a nightmare “experiment” when Covid struck in 2020.

According to Mary Wimbury, the Covid inquiry had flagged up once again that Wales and the rest of the UK was under prepared to deal with a pandemic.

She was speaking after the UK Covid-19 inquiry moved to Cardiff to scrutinise the Welsh government’s handling of the emergency.

In the early stages , said Ms Wimbury, protecting the NHS had been treated as the  paramount priority while social care hadn’t been given enough consideration.

One of the catastrophic consequences was that admitting untested hospital patients into care homes had in some cases led to the virus spreading rapidly, leading to the deaths of many vulnerable elderly residents.

In the three-year period from January 2020 there were nearly 1,500 excess deaths in care homes in Wales.

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The lack of a rigorous testing regime early on and shortages of personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves and aprons had contributed to the problems.

On the other hand the Welsh Government had adopted a more cautious, considered approach than the UK Government and only announced new infection control measures when the necessary infrastructure had been put in place.

Financial support provided by the Welsh Government for the social care sector was also significantly higher in Wales than in other parts of the UK.

Ms Wimbury said: “During those early weeks, we were talking to our counterparts in care associations across the United Kingdom and I think all of us felt the focus was very much on the NHS and there wasn’t sufficient focus on care homes in particular.

“We felt more planning could have been done in advance in relation to the different types of pandemics and how we would react to them.

“It’s definitely the case we were pressing for testing in particular for people being admitted to care homes from hospitals before that was implemented.

“While testing was announced earlier in England but we were also hearing from counterparts in England was that, although it had been announced, it wasn’t necessarily happening on the ground because the infrastructure wasn’t there.

“One of the differences we saw during the pandemic was that Welsh Government wanted to get the logistics in place before announcing something.

“Testing was absolutely crucial and what we were hearing from members across Wales in the early days was that they were being put under pressure by the NHS to admit people without testing.

“We know that testing would have helped but we also know that in the early stages when people were incubating Covid they wouldn’t have necessarily tested positive. It would have helped in some cases but not in all of them.

“At the time it felt very much like we were living in an experiment and we were finding out about the disease as we went along. 

“It was the sector’s worst possible nightmare because the virus was most dangerous to frail elderly people

“We started asking questions in February 2020 about preparations in terms of the care sector and it became clear in the early days of the pandemic in the March that we needed an extension of testing and access to sufficient PPE for staff working in the social care sector, as well as funding to implement the infection control  measures that were necessary.

“There were gradual steps as different measures were introduced. Initially, we go the extension of testing for new admissions to care homes and for symptomatic care home residents.

“At the start there was a rule that you could only test five people in a care home and once you had five tests you couldn’t have any more. Clearly, that didn’t make sense going forward.

“Then we moved on to testing all staff and residents when there was an outbreak and finally to all residents and staff being tested regularly.”

“What the inquiry gives us an opportunity to do is to think about what could have been done better in advance so that, heaven forbid, if we were to have another pandemic in future we can be better prepared.”

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