As coronavirus ripped through care homes in the UK, one provider decided to go its own way and ended up saving residents from catastrophe.
- About 20,000 UK care residents died from COVID-19 between March and June
- One provider locked down homes and refused to take in hospital patients
- Their homes have not experienced a single case of COVID-19
David McGuire runs the Diagrama Foundation, which cares for elderly and special needs residents in Kent in southern England.
Despite claims from health officials in February that it was “very unlikely” people in care could be infected, Mr McGuire defied the government’s guidelines and locked down his facilities.
It paid off.
While about 20,000 care residents have died with COVID-19 in the UK, none of Mr McGuire’s residents has tested positive.
He now has a message for Australian aged care providers as they confront the deadly spread of COVID-19.
“Don’t wait for anyone to tell you what to do,” he told the ABC.
The UK care home boss says Australian facilities shouldn’t be afraid to impose lockdowns, even if it seems excessive.
“Act quickly. Follow your gut. If you think what you’re doing is ‘over the top,’ keep doing it.”
How David avoided a coronavirus outbreak
In late February, when there were only a few cases of COVID-19 in the UK, the Government agency Public Health England told care homes not to worry.
“Currently there is no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom. There is no need to do anything differently in any care setting at present,” it said.
The advice was updated on March 13, but even then they failed to comprehend the risk.
Homes were simply advised to encourage good hygiene, whilst discouraging visits from guests who were unwell.
But Mr McGuire had been speaking regularly with colleagues in Spain, where the virus had already taken hold in care homes.
He couldn’t comprehend the UK’s approach, and so decided to take decisive action.
Mr McGuire banned all non-essential visits, meaning his residents could not see their friends and family. Video calls were their only social contact with the outside world.
“I remember some residents crying. It was a difficult decision,” he said.
The government did not order a general lockdown until 11 days later. By that time, the virus was already embedding itself in the nation’s care homes.
Over the weeks that followed, thousands of vulnerable people would die, many without their families by their sides.
‘Abandoned and thrown to the wolves’
Mr McGuire averted an early outbreak, but then the Government tried to transfer hospital patients to his facilities.
Hospitals needed to free up beds for an influx of COVID-19 patients, and in early April official guidance stated that negative tests were not required before a patient could be transferred to a care home.
But Mr McGuire stood his ground, and said he would only accept patients who had tested negative.
“I think that has proved to be right, because some of the people who we stopped … a couple of days later, they [tested] positive,” he said.
There is no way of knowing how many infectious patients were discharged into care homes.
However, figures show that 25,000 patients were transferred from hospitals into English care homes before a routine testing program began on April 16.
Nadra Ahmed, Chair of the National Care Association, said the test results did not come fast enough to prevent contagion.
“There were assurances that [patients] were fit for discharge. So tests were taken, but results weren’t necessarily available before the move was made,” she told the ABC.
She said staff felt “scared” and “anxious” that the hospital system was being prioritised over care homes.
“There was a feeling of being abandoned and thrown the wolves. They were expected to run mini-hospitals all of a sudden,” she said.
The UK Government denies there was any systematic discharge of infectious patients.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson even appeared to blame care home staff, saying many “didn’t really follow the procedures”.
He later backtracked from those comments.
“The one thing that nobody knew early on during this pandemic was that the virus was being passed asymptomatically from person to person in the way that it is,” he said.
Regardless of how the virus arrived in care homes, it wreaked havoc once inside.
Between early March and mid June, 66,112 people died in care home deaths in England and Wales. Nearly 30 per cent of those deaths “involved” COVID-19, according to the UK Office of National Statistics.
It accounted for one in three male deaths in care homes. For women, the figure was one in four.
Staff wore the ‘same mask for five shifts’
Australia has been building up its stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) for several months, although some shortages have still been reported in Victoria, where aged care staff are now required to wear them.
In the UK, care homes had to compete for supplies with better resourced hospitals, including several temporary ‘Nightingale’ clinics set up specifically to treat COVID-19 patients.
“Some consignments were coming into the UK docks and being diverted straight to the [new] Nightingale hospitals,” Ms Ahmed said.
Like many other care providers in the UK, Mr McGuire was not able to secure enough PPE, so staff had to reuse their masks for up to five shifts.
“It was better to reuse them than to not wear anything,” he said.
He said he hopes Australian aged care staff use everything at their disposal, even if it seems like overkill.
“Masks should be worn by everyone at all times,” he said.
While Australia’s rising infection numbers are still low compared to what occurred in the UK, Mr McGuire has warned that complacency can lead to catastrophe.