These are testing times for 70-year-old Elaine Yates. She suffers from lung disease, asthma and arthritis – yet by comparison with her husband, Michael, she might be considered a beacon of health.
Until 2004, when Michael fell and incurred brain damage following a stroke, he was a fit former Royal Pioneer Corps soldier.
Today, aged 74, he has so many ailments on the coronavirus ‘at risk’ list – dementia, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, prostate cancer, diabetes – that he is almost off the scale.
The admirable Mrs Yates long ago gave up her job as a shoe factory manager for what she calls the ‘honour’ of looking after the man she adores. Yet until the pandemic she at least had some assistance.
Michael and Elaine Yates, pictured, have dispensed with their kindly, dependable home carer over fears she might unwittingly be carrying the virus, which would have fatal consequences
On three days a week, a home carer would spend six or seven hours at the couple’s one-bedroomed bungalow in the Northamptonshire village of Irchester, making Mr Yates’ meals, helping him move about and engaging him in cheery conversation.
For the past month, however, Mrs Yates has carried the burden of tending to his many needs alone.
Yesterday her day began at 5am, when she rose to empty Mr Yates’ catheter bag and administer the first dose of 40 daily pills that keep him functioning.
By midnight, when she fell exhausted into bed, she had helped him to wash and dress, fed him, injected him with insulin, changed his incontinence pads several times and carried out countless other tasks.
So why has Mrs Yates dispensed with her kindly, dependable home carer?
Because, she says, she was terrified that Elaine Swainson might unwittingly be carrying the virus that would almost surely kill him. ‘Through no fault of her own, Elaine was coming here with no personal protective equipment at all – no mask, gloves or apron,’ Mrs Yates told us.
‘She just wore her normal clothes, unlike the NHS nurse who gives Michael his cancer injections: she now comes dressed up like a space-woman.
‘Elaine is a sociable person, and I didn’t know who she might have mixed with, and I felt it was a big risk to Michael, so I’ve cancelled her visits. It’s not easy to care for him on my own, but if this is what it takes to keep my husband alive, it’s a price worth paying.’
Mrs Swainson agrees with the decision. ‘I wouldn’t want to put Michael in a position where I might give him the virus,’ she says. ‘He wouldn’t survive it.’
She works for Northamptonshire agency Lavender Support Services, but doesn’t blame the agency, saying it is struggling – like almost every other provider – to buy PPE.
‘They now have some basic masks and aprons but they’ve had no hand sanitiser for six to eight weeks,’ she claimed.
Lavender did not respond to our request for comment.
It is just one couple’s story, but as the Daily Mail has discovered, it is being replicated across the country and goes to the heart of yet another potentially catastrophic subplot to this pandemic.
Hitherto, the threat that well-meaning but shamefully under-protected home carers might be infecting their clients has gone virtually unreported.
The focus has been on the plight of those living and working, often without adequate protection, inside care homes.
Understandably so: for as we have revealed, the uncounted Covid-19 death toll in these homes runs into the thousands.
However, while 400,000 live in residential care, more than double that number – 810,000 – rely on home carers while remaining in their own houses.
And according to experts, the crisis in this sector is worryingly gathering pace.
In England, the virus is already known to have killed at least one home carer, mother-of-two Carol Jamabo, 56, who worked in Bury, Greater Manchester. What has not yet emerged is whether she had been issued with adequate PPE and, crucially, how many people she had visited and may have infected.
While 400,000 live in residential care, more than double that number – 810,000 – rely on home carers while remaining in their own houses
Meanwhile, in Dundee, home carer Susan Marnie has told how two of her nine colleagues tested positive and four others were off work with symptoms. Of the 30 people her team visited, one had died from the contagion, five had tested positive and there were four suspected cases.
The £13-an-hour carer, who travels to homes by bus and foot, says the team had to buy their own hand-sanitiser gel – a claim her employers Dundee Council refute – and were offered only ‘a bar of soap to carry about’. She says she now ‘lies awake at night’ fearing she might infect and kill clients she has known for years.
Her anxiety is shared by many who work in Britain’s vast home care industry, regarded as the Cinderella of our welfare system.
Providers employ their workers on zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage of £8.72 an hour.
It is impossible to know how many people might have died after being infected by these carers as almost everyone who catches coronavirus at home, and dies, will do so in hospital. They will therefore be counted among the overall statistics.
However, a Daily Mail investigation has uncovered the frightening threat posed by under- protected home carers.
Since many of those who depend on them require multiple daily visits, the United Kingdom Homecare Association (UKHCA) estimates before the virus struck, they would make about 7,210,000 visits a week in England. Yet a new UKHCA survey indicates that about 1.2 million visits have been cancelled in the last fortnight – about 8.5 per cent.
In some areas the rate was as high as 12 per cent.
In some cases, councils are cancelling home visits so carers can be deployed to help Covid patients who return home after leaving hospital.
Sickness and self-isolation among carers is another factor, Then there is the lack of PPE, which has left people such as Mrs Yates with a devil-and-deep-blue-sea choice: either risk admitting sparsely-protected carers into the house, or do their demanding work oneself.
Providers we spoke to blamed their inability to source and purchase masks, gloves and aprons on the worldwide shortage, which has left the home-care sector ‘at the bottom of the barrel’, behind the NHS and residential homes.According to the UKHCA it has also led to ruthless profiteering, with some disgracefully greedy suppliers seeking to charge £8 for a face mask that previously cost just 12p.
‘There is a growing sense of desperation among homecare providers about how they can be expected to continue to operate safely in these circumstances,’ says the organisation’s policy director Colin Angel.
‘Eighty per cent (of care providers) reported having only enough supplies to last two to three days.The government’s PPE plan is not delivering results on the ground. Wholesalers have very low stock and are rationing what they do have.
‘Communication from local councils and local resilience forums (multi-agency partnerships handling distribution) is patchy. Some providers have succeeded in obtaining PPE from their local councils and others have had no response to requests for help.’
At the sharp-end of this mess is Jonathan Vellacott, executive chairman of Mi-Homecare which serves 37 local authorities and specialises in people needing complex home care.
Having seen all the stock from his usual provider requisitioned by the NHS, he told us, he is now ‘scratching around almost every day to try and find basic stuff such as aprons and gloves’, and pays up to six times the usual cost.
‘A box of gloves would have been £2.11 per 100, now it’s £5 or £6’, he says. ‘But I’d never send a careworker out without the right PPE. I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way. We are asked to take people out of hospital, usually in London, on a daily basis, but if we don’t have the right PPE I would say to that authority, ‘No’. Not until we get the proper equipment. But there’s huge pressure on social care… to take people outside hospital, and maybe less robust organisations (than his own) might not be pushing back hard enough.’
Citing the Government’s mantra – ‘save lives, protect the NHS’ – he added that the home care sector could also save lives and help the health service if only it was given sufficient resources to do so.
At his company, 20 per cent of the 3,100 staff are off sick, some suffering from coronavirus, or its possible symptoms, others self-isolating; and in London alone 230 carers are absent. There was a similar story in Birmingham, where the boss of Sutton Coldfield-based Cherish Home Care said some staff walked out over the lack of PPE. Her case has been taken up by Edgbaston MP Preet Kaur Gill.
Last night, Dr Jane Townson, chief executive of the UKHCA, told the Mail that the organisation’s latest checks showed the number of cancelled home visits changed little last week. It means more than 600,000 care visits have been lost for each of the past two weeks during the pandemic, leaving countless vulnerable, elderly and sick people without the care they badly need.
The other major concern is lack of testing among home carers. Though this is now being carried out among front-line hospital staff, very few community carers have been vetted for the virus. Thus far, only ten pilot schemes have been set up to assess the logistics of testing them.
Public focus in recent weeks has been on the plight of those living and working, often without adequate protection, inside care homes, pictured
According to sources, when one London borough was asked to test hundreds of the carers it hires, just six tests per day were made available at a drive-through facility. ‘That’s a drop in the ocean,’ said the source incredulously.
Many home carers are afraid to speak out about the perils they face and present to others.
However, they are airing their anger and fear on social media. On Twitter, Lucie Morgan wrote: ‘I’m a home carer going in and out of the elderly and vulnerable (sic) and still no ppe or testing!’
An alarming picture. Yet the appalling irony that Britain’s unsung army of carers are spreading the virus among the very people whose lives they strive to improve is not the only point at issue here.
In an industry where the profit margins are already small, the massively increased cost of providing PPE could bankrupt some agencies, leaving a gap in our social care provision for years to come.
The Mail has learned of one home care company which requires 50,000 masks a week, and has been quoted £5 a mask. That means an outlay of an extra £1million a month.
Meanwhile, for fragile folk compelled to do without their guardian angels because the risks of allowing them into their home are too great, the isolation is so much harder to bear.
Sue Learner, editor of website homecare.co.uk, warns we could see an ‘epidemic of loneliness’, which would be ‘hugely damaging to people’s health’, because for many people home carers are their only contact with the outside world.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, agrees. ‘If older people have to go without the social care they need, they are more at risk of becoming unwell because emerging health problems may not be spotted until they become much more serious, piling more pressure on the NHS – the last thing anyone needs right now,’ she says.
Indeed not. Yesterday, the stoical Mrs Yates was busy tending to her husband who cut his toe in the bathroom. Because of his conditions there is a risk of infection, so he now requires antibiotics.
She nonetheless remained upbeat. She repeated her pledge not to call for the return of her carer until the pandemic is over. However, for tens of thousands of less resourceful people, their home-carer is an indispensable lifeline.
Surely the Government must make it an urgent priority to equip these brave, dedicated workers properly, and get them all tested, so they can carry out their vital duties safely?
Virus testing for just one in four care staff who fear they’ve caught corona
Only one in four care home workers who fear they have coronavirus have been tested, figures show.
Managers say their staff face four-hour round trips to centres which are only accessible by car when many do not drive.
Some are stuck self-isolating and unable to return to the front line where they are desperately needed.
There are just seven days left before the deadline set by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, pictured, who promised 100,000 coronavirus tests a day.
It comes as the capacity for tens of thousands of tests continues to be wasted each day with just half of the possible 41,398 being used.
There are just seven days left before the deadline for Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s promise of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day.
But only 22,814 were carried out on Tuesday across England, Wales and Scotland.
MPs and trade union bosses last night branded the low levels of testing in the care sector ‘appalling’.
Last week Mr Hancock said everyone working in social care who needed to be checked would be able to do so immediately.
But those who are showing symptoms of Covid-19 must be referred by their employer then travel to one of the Government’s 27 drive-through centres. Some face round trips of more than 200 miles.
They have also been told they are not allowed to take public transport or taxis, leaving those without a car unable to get there.
Data collected by the National Care Forum, which represents nonprofit providers, suggests just 25 per cent of care home staff needing tests have had them.
The NCF collected data from 21 members which together employ almost 16,000 staff.
Of the 632 residential care staff needing tests only 164 had them, and just 19 of the 281 home carers.
The Care Quality Commission said on Monday it had so far booked 18,473 appointments for the staff – just one per cent of the 1.5million people who work in the sector.
But it could not clarify how many tests had taken place.
Care company Barchester, which runs more than 200 homes, said it had referred ‘several hundred’ members of staff to centres and was working with the Government and CQC to provide home kits to workers who cannot get to test centres.
Liz Kendall, Labour’s social care spokesman, last night said: ‘We’ve heard of appalling cases where care workers in Norfolk have been told to go to Sheffield and those in Peterborough to Stansted Airport.
‘It’s madness – the Government doesn’t understand how real people’s lives work.’
Labour MP Peter Kyle added: ‘By designing a testing infrastructure that works for Whitehall but isn’t local enough so low income workers without access to transport to use it is a barrier not a solution.’
Vic Rayner, executive director of the NCF, called for a rapid response to solve the problem.
She said: ‘Our data has revealed social care staff are travelling on average 62 miles on a round trip to test centres.
‘A large proportion of them rely on public transport to get about. More needs to be done and practical arrangements made.’