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Boris Johnson is facing a backlash from the care home sector after suggesting “too many” failed to follow procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.
The prime minister said lessons are being learned after appearing to cast some blame on care homes as they responded to the Covid-19 outbreak.
But operators responded by saying they were given “slow and conflicting advice” and more than 100 pieces of additional guidance in the same number of days.
Almost 20,000 care home residents in England and Wales have died with coronavirus, the majority dying in their care home, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said.
Covid-19 accounted for 29% of the deaths of care home residents between March 2 and June 12 and a fifth of all deaths of care home residents this year.
There has been a slowdown in the number of overall deaths and those involving Covid-19 in care home residents since mid-April, the ONS said.
Asked what he made of NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens’ wish to see plans to adequately fund the adult social care sector within a year, he said: “One of the things the crisis has shown is we need to think about how we organise our social care package better and how we make sure we look after people better who are in social care.
“We discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have but we’re learning lessons the whole time.
“Most important is to fund them properly… but we will also be looking at ways to make sure the care sector long term is properly organised and supported.”
But care providers said the basis for the PM’s comments was unclear, while the National Care Forum (NCF) urged him to start “turning the dial up on reform and down on blame”.
Vic Rayner, executive director of the NCF, which represents 120 of the UK’s social care charities, welcomed the PM’s recognition of the need for proper funding.
She added: “However, Mr Johnson’s comments in relation to care homes’ following of procedures are neither accurate nor welcome.
“Government guidance has come to the sector in stops and starts – with organisations grappling with over 100 pieces of additional guidance in the same number of days, much of which was not accompanied by an understanding of the operational implications of operating care services.
“Care providers have moved to adopt these new procedures consistently, at pace and with integrity.”
She added that he must start “turning the dial up on reform and down on blame”.
The Independent Care Group (ICG) said the vast majority of providers had “done their absolute best in the face of slow and conflicting advice”.
ICG chairman Mike Padgham said: “We should not be getting into the blame game and it is wrong to criticise care and nursing homes at this time.
“It is worth remembering that in February the Government agency Public Health England told homes it was ‘very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected’ and that homes didn’t need to do anything differently.
“It was many weeks later, after most homes had already put themselves into lockdown, that the advice changed.”
Padgham said it was only when the real death toll in care homes became apparent that the government accepted social care was as much on the front line as hospitals.
He added: “Care providers may not have got everything perfect but neither has the government.
“For far too much of this pandemic, providers were operating in the dark over what they ought to do and with one arm behind their backs in terms of the support they were given. In those circumstances, they have worked miracles.”
Chief executive of the charitable care provider MHA, Sam Monaghan, said that Johnson was “entirely right” that social care needs long-term support, adding: “It is unclear what the evidence is for his claim that ‘too many care homes didn’t follow procedures in the right way’.
“But the three things he has identified that the sector needs going forwards – support, organisation and funding – are the three specific things that have been lacking from government during the course of the pandemic.
“What is clear is that a public inquiry needs to be expedited and the PM’s comments imply that he feels the same.”
Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The underfunding of social care shouldn’t be a surprise to the PM.”
She added: “Care was exposed and vulnerable from the off. Little or no protective kit, no testing and an absence of full sick pay meant the virus spread easily, with catastrophic consequences.
“There’s many lessons to be learned. Governments have promised reform but nothing’s happened. Fundamental change must now happen – and quickly.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.