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I rise to speak in this important debate as a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult social care. I pay tribute to everyone working in social care throughout the coronavirus pandemic along with staff in our amazing NHS. They have been on the frontline of a pandemic that has taken a brutal toll on our most vulnerable residents and on many staff.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, a working group of the APPG, drawn from members across the social care sector, has held a virtual meeting every week. Those meetings have been an invaluable opportunity to understand exactly how harrowing the crisis has been for the social care sector and how forgotten and ignored many of those who have striven to care for our most vulnerable residents have felt. It has also been a useful reality check on the mismatch between what the Government have claimed about support for the care sector and the situation on the ground.
Week after week, members of the APPG working group raised the difficulties they found in obtaining PPE in the quantity and to the specification needed. Week after week, they reported the lack of access to testing. Members of the working group who manage their own care at home have reported almost total abandonment by the Government in the early weeks of the crisis—no PPE, no guidance, no testing and often no care as the risks of coronavirus infection were too high for home care to be delivered. All that was happening while the coronavirus death toll in the care sector spiralled higher and higher. The part of our society with the greatest vulnerability has suffered the greatest losses from the pandemic. For months now, the Government have failed to put in place the key provision the care sector needs to keep its residents safe: frequent, comprehensive, regular testing.
At the beginning of the crisis, no testing was available to care homes, even for symptomatic residents. We know that hospital patients were discharged into care homes without confirmed coronavirus status and that some of them took the infection back with them into homes that were previously coronavirus-free. When testing centres were opened, they were situated in inaccessible locations and had to be accessed in a private car, putting testing out of reach for thousands of low-paid care workers who cannot afford to run cars. A constituent of mine runs a large care home in south London. She told me recently that they had just completed comprehensive testing of all staff and residents in the home, after many weeks of waiting for access to tests, but that the last two tests they had completed were positive, one of them from a staff member who was asymptomatic. She asks how, knowing that an asymptomatic staff member had been at the care home, they could be sure that they were coronavirus-free without the ability to test all staff and residents again immediately. I ask the Minister to confirm in her closing remarks when care homes and carers delivering home care will be able to access frequent, regular testing to enable the protection of vulnerable people.
The Prime Minister promised a world-beating testing system. The social care sector would settle for one that functions at all. Will the Minister also address the situation facing care staff who have been shielding? The Government have announced an end to shielding, but without comprehensive testing to demonstrate that a care home is coronavirus-free, it will be impossible for them to return to work safely. The crisis has exposed a social care system that is fragmented and underfunded and that has been pushed to breaking point. Within that system, there have been many acts of extraordinary courage, compassion and creativity in our care homes but it is clear that the responsibility for the devastation of coronavirus in the care sector lies firmly at the Government’s door. Coming out of this crisis, the Government cannot continue to neglect and ignore social care, but must build a system that is properly funded and in which staff are properly paid and recognised.