The devastating spread of the coronavirus among care homes has led to a growing number of families seeking legal advice about bringing their relatives home, the Guardian has learned.
One law firm said it had received at least 10 calls a week from families wanting to overturn guidance that prevents them from withdrawing their loved ones.
Advice lines said they had also seen a small but growing number of calls from those experiencing what one lawyer called a new “fear factor … the fear that coronavirus will sweep through the care home and everyone will die”.
Recorded care home deaths from Covid-19 have been running at around 2,400 per week. When Boris Johnson said on Friday that the UK has passed the peak of the pandemic and he could see a light at the end of the tunnel, care networks hit back, saying this was not true in care homes.
At the weekend, Britain’s biggest care home provider, HC-One, wrote to social services officials asking for a financial bailout after modelling showed that occupancy was expected to reduce from its normal 90% to 70% by July.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, David Smith, the company’s chief financial officer, said death rates were currently running at eight times admissions. The network had seen 637 resident deaths and three care worker deaths attributed to Covid, and the current death rate was three times higher than last year and the highest on record.
HC-One, which has 328 homes and almost 20,000 residents, has asked councils to continue paying them at 90% occupancy rates. In a note accompanying the filing of its 2019 accounts, it said: “The directors consider the specific downside scenario impact of Covid-19 on the group’s occupancy levels and cash flows to be so significant that it represents a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt on the group’s … ability to continue as a going concern.”
Amid concerns about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing in care homes, families now appear to be taking matters into their own hands.
Emma Jones, a solicitor specialising in human rights at Leigh Day, said she is receiving at least 10 calls a week from families struggling to persuade local authority social workers to let them remove residents from care homes.
“Prior to the crisis, I didn’t often get enquiries from families wanting to bring their loved ones out of residential care homes and into their own homes,” she said. “But families are worried now that care homes aren’t the safest place for their loved ones and, as a result, they want them back home.
“The difference now to before the crisis is the fear factor. The fear that coronavirus will sweep through the care home and everyone will die. Not being allowed to visit their loved ones in the care homes is making the fear worse. It’s increased the worry.”
Jo, who did not want to publish her surname, brought her 84-year-old mother, Phyllis, home from her care home last week. She said: “I’m so glad that I’ve finally got her home.
“I’ve been fighting to get her for weeks because the local authority didn’t want to release her. Last weekend, I was in floods of tears because I thought I wasn’t going to persuade them, but I didn’t give up.”
Jo got permission but then the care home reported its first two cases of Covid-19. “I rang and said I wanted to take her out two days earlier than we’d agreed,” she said. “They completely understood and I picked her up a few hours later.”
Phyllis said she got out “by the skin of her teeth”. She said: “I felt so vulnerable, locked up in there and not able to do anything. At the moment, care homes are more dangerous than being at home and I think I was lucky to escape.”
There are more than 400,000 people in residential care homes in England and Wales. A significant number have been assessed as being unable to make safe decisions about their own care.
Deprivation of liberty (DoL) safeguards mean these people are unable to leave their care homes without permission from a social worker. In the year to 31 March 2019, 116,940 DoLs were granted in care homes or hospitals.
Helen Wildbore, the director of the Relatives and Residents’ Association, said its helpline had seen an increase in calls about the issue in the past week.
She said: “Following news of the increased numbers of deaths in care homes, we received at least 10 calls in four days. But for those who lack capacity to choose where they live, it’s not always as easy to bring loved ones home as some families might initially think: many residents in care homes have DoL authorisations, which mean families will need to work with a social worker to be sure that moving is in that person’s best interests.”
“We have been supporting family members to explore the practical considerations, such as their relative’s care needs, including their medical and mobility requirements. Then they have to consider any risk associated with moving the person out of the care home. Many of our callers have come to the difficult conclusion that moving their relative is not a viable option.”
According to Public Health England, there have been outbreaks in 29% of the country’s 15,000 homes, though that is thought to be an underestimate.
Oliver Lewis, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers who specialises in issues concerning the court of protection, said:“Care homes increase residents’ risk of infection because of the physical proximity of and multiple contacts between residents and staff.
“Care home residents are more likely than the general population to have co-morbidities relating to respiratory disease, heart disease, their immune systems, diabetes and obesity, which increases the risk that they will have a more severe form of the infection.”