OPINION: Why we need a care sector COVID-19 public inquiry

Tim Coolican Head of Regulatory at Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP

Tim Coolican, partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors, calls for an urgent inquiry into the coronavirus social care crisis.

Coronavirus has had a deadly impact on the UK social care sector. Altogether, 6,329 outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported in care homes, leading to over 11,000 deaths.

While care providers have overcome the virus’s initial peak, the number of people affected in social care settings is shocking and the human impact has been devastating. Families have had to endure losing loved ones, many unable to see relatives in their last moments. Care providers and their employees have worked in unprecedented and difficult circumstances to deliver support and care, with some even isolating from their families to prevent transmission.

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A lack of resources, the absence of a clear government strategy and difficulties sourcing sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) has made it challenging for care providers to avoid or control outbreaks of coronavirus. This is despite the government’s claim that it had “thrown a protective ring around care homes”.

The high numbers of fatalities in care homes reaffirm that the government does not understand the social care sector, with its coronavirus response both delayed and inadequate. The handling of testing, PPE provision and the failure to adequately address the risks of hospitals discharging potentially symptomatic patients into care homes rank as just a few key issues that need to be addressed in a public inquiry.

However, an investigation cannot wait until six months or a year’s time, rather a public inquiry into the response to coronavirus in UK social care is needed now.

With scientists still in the dark about further waves – China is already reporting resurgences of COVID-19 – it is vital that the government identifies and addresses failures in managing the pandemic in the social care sector. The immediacy of an inquiry will ensure that the social care system is better prepared to fight coronavirus in the months to come.

The aim of a public inquiry would be to answer three questions:

What happened?

Who is responsible?

What can we learn from this?

Historically, inquiries have spanned many months, even years, with most investigations taking over two years for the production of a final report.

In the case of coronavirus in social care, delays in launching and revealing an inquiry’s findings would cost the lives of service users and staff. To avoid this, the government could utilise a two-phased approach that would see the most immediate and potentially fatal issues addressed first. This could include PPE provision, funding, testing and the transfer of patients from hospitals to care homes.

Through an urgent investigation and the publication of a rapid report, failings in the response to coronavirus in social care settings could be identified. Accompanying recommendations would enable central government, care commissioners and providers to take steps to prevent the same mistakes from occurring again – saving lives.

The second phase of the inquiry could examine these issues in more detail, alongside longer-term structural issues, including sector and regulatory reform. This is a similar model to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which was split into two separate phases.

Just as the people affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster or those who are currently living in buildings at risk to fire deserve progress, the day-to-day impact of the pandemic cannot halt an inquiry into coronavirus in social care. The government must also avoid taking assurance from declining care home deaths; as the last three months have shown, the coronavirus is unpredictable and by not addressing problems it risks repeat fatal outbreaks.

An immediate phased public inquiry into coronavirus in social care will not bring those who have died back, but its short and long-term findings will be critical to ensuring that care providers can protect staff and the people who rely on their services.

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The author Lee Peart

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