Care homes have said staff with Covid must not be allowed to return to work despite this week’s announcement by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, that legal self-isolation requirements are to be lifted across England.
Barchester, one of the UK’s largest care home operators, said it would defy any attempt to weaken self-isolation rules for staff.
The chief executive, Pete Calveley, said: “I don’t care what the government says, we are going to make sure we do a risk assessment on every individual. [Lifting self-isolation] is probably fine for the general public but not for care homes.”
Announcing that “we must learn to live with Covid, in the same way we have to live with flu”, Javid said on Wednesday: “We’re looking to replace legal requirements on self-isolation with advice and guidance.”
But with Omicron remaining highly infectious and deaths from the latest variant still rising, social care providers are being cautious and demanding clarification from the government.
There were 194 deaths from Covid notified by England’s care homes in the week ending 14 January, up from 133 the previous week and the highest level since the beginning of March 2021 when the devastating Delta wave was receding from social care.
Mike Padgham, who operates care homes in Yorkshire and is the chair of the Independent Care Group, said: “I can’t see it changing for us for some time. It is still dangerous. I think there will be face masks and PPE in care homes for several more months. The only concession I can see coming is more visitors than the three [that are currently allowed].”
While lifting self-isolation could help ease the severe staffing crisis in social care, which is being exacerbated by Covid infections among workers, care operators have a duty to keep residents safe, and they also fear taking risks that could breach their insurance terms.
The National Care Forum, which represents not-for-profit care homes, estimates that its members are working with only two-thirds of the staff they need when vacancies are added to sickness absence. Vacancy rates have almost doubled since April and now stand at 11% in England, the Care Quality Commission regulator said this week.
Calveley, who oversees 250 care homes, said: “We will test people on day five and six and if they are negative they can return to work. If not, they can’t”.
Barchester said there needed to be further analysis of the mortality caused by Omicron in care homes before it lifted the requirement for staff to self-isoate, but that could be possible in the future.
Nadra Ahmed, the executive chair of the National Care Association, which represents independent care operators, said lifting self-isolation advice for care staff could leave operators liable if it resulted residents getting infected.
“How does this impact on infection, especially with Omicron, which is so infectious and the spread is greater?” she said. “Are we saying that in a care setting now we are not worrying about infections?”
On Thursday, the Department of Health and Social Care was unable to clarify what the plan to lift the self-isolation requirement meant for care workers.
Vic Rayner, the executive director of the National Care Forum, said: “We need to understand what are the stages to get from where we are now, with isolation and funding to support staff who are isolating, to what appears to be a move to a discretionary position. The government needs to be really clear in advance about what this will mean for those working in health and care, and not leave it till the last gasp to outline a workable situation.”