It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I should say to Joy Morrissey that I was really moved by the way she opened the debate, particularly the way she described Jamie’s story. It will be imprinted on my mind and, I am sure, on the minds of all hon. Members present.
When things do not add up, I ask questions. During the first lockdown, I had to jump through hoops just to obtain data to find out what was actually happening in our care homes. I spoke to managers, the local authority, relatives, staff and whistleblowers, then I put the jigsaw together. In the vast majority of care homes, residents were kept safe, and I thank the staff for their extraordinary work and for the ends that they went to in order to care for the residents. However, some care homes stood out. In the first period, around half of covid-related deaths in York were in care homes. Discharging patients into care homes—something I pleaded with the local authority not to do—seeded the infection. It then spread with the lack of PPE and no training in barrier nursing.
However, there was another conclusion to my inquiry: care homes became closed environments. One thing that we know about closed environments is that they are also unsafe. We have heard so many times in this place about the bitter experience of that. The plethora of informal inspectors were not there—GPs, community pharmacists and other professionals. They did not go in and see for themselves. Families did not go in either.
Families notice things. They notice if mum cannot reach a cup of tea, is looking unwell, has not eaten or is confused, and they notice if dad is slightly more unsteady on his feet, upset or withdrawn. But they were not there do that. However, one family noticed the eerie silence at one care home. Having been told that everything was fine, they learned that 15 people had died over a fortnight. They were not informed of the risk, only that the deaths had occurred. By the time it came to their deathbed visits, of course, it was all too late. During a deathbed visit to their mum, who had been fine, they found her emaciated, as if she had not eaten since their last visit in previous weeks. On another visit, they noticed that mum’s mobile was uncharged. On another, she had a fractured pelvis on discharge. That is why visits must occur; if they do not, these things go unnoticed.
It was whistleblowers who informed me that, at one care home, people contracted covid but their death certificates with marked with their underlying health condition. Covid was not put on the death certificate, because there were fears of reputational damage to the care home. The staff’s concerns were dismissed, and they were bullied. Even when the CQC came at my calling, they were shifted out of sight or moved to other shifts. Families would have noticed such issues.
Families must be proactively communicated with at all times and supplied with the information that they need to make care choices. As one relative said,
“We would have brought mum home had I known there was covid. It took her life.”
I am sure we were all distressed to see a nurse who went to take her 97-year-old mum home being arrested for doing what any of us would do in those circumstances. Families must visit and must have the choice where care is provided.
A constituent wrote to me this week, having celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary in September. He and his wife are both in their 80s and were told they could not visit. He said:
“When your whole existence is dedicated to the love you have for one another, it tells you something is very wrong.”
A distressed daughter told me this week that her father “couldn’t visit mum”. What are we doing to people? This is just so wrong. People are separated because our care system does not allow spouses to join their life partners unless they pay extortionate fees that they cannot afford.
I urge the Minister to look at that issue in the care sector. Not only must we give choice around visiting, but it must become a human right for older people. Visits can be facilitated with dedication and focus, PPE supply, and lateral flow testing to open up more opportunities and create safe spaces. We need to ensure that indemnity insurance does not prohibit the care home sector from pursuing that.
On the vaccine, the most vulnerable and those wishing to visit them must be prioritised. We must also ensure that there are clear and easy routes for staff, residents and relatives to raise any concerns they may have. We all know that we need to look into the eyes of those we love—hold them, and know that they are safe.