Home care workers and the organisations employing them are demanding the same access to regular COVID-19 testing as those working in residential care.
The government rolled out weekly testing for all care home staff and monthly testing for residents in July, but home care workers, along with supported living and extra care housing staff, are only eligible for a test if they have symptoms.
Public Health England has analysed infection rates among the domiciliary care workforce and concluded that regular testing for staff is not recommended, as the risk of infection is much lower than the higher prevalence observed in care home staff.
But leaders in the sector told BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme that the decision not to give home care workers equal access to testing is “illogical” given the research that suggests people who are asymptomatic can pass the virus onto others.
United Kingdom Home Care Association’s policy director Colin Angel said: “Fortunately, the rate of transmission of coronavirus amongst homecare workers does not seem to be any higher than in the general population. This appears to be Government’s rationale for not routinely testing homecare workers who do not have symptoms.
“But we are talking about a group of older or disabled people who may be more susceptible to coronavirus.
“It seems to be illogical that homecare workers and the people they support are currently excluded from asymptomatic testing. This has certainly created a sense that people who use home care services and our workforce have received a low priority in government’s thinking.”
Olga Garcier, a home care worker and manager at Penrose Care in London, told the BBC programme that she has lived in fear of passing the virus onto her clients since the crisis began.
“When the pandemic started, even before the lockdown, my company was taking all types of precautions, but every day leaving the house was a risk because I was surrounded by people who weren’t taking precautions, so I was scared of catching the virus and spreading it,” she said.
“When they started doing the testing, I wanted to be tested, but they didn’t give us the option because we weren’t from a care home and we weren’t from the NHS. It’s a big concern for me and my colleagues.”
Shirley Hall, head of innovation and wellbeing at the ExtraCare Charitable Trust, which runs around 20 extra care villages, said: “All of our staff are making sure that they are social distancing and they’ve been wearing the appropriate and correct PPE from the start, but I think if we could get everybody tested, because of the difficulties of not knowing if someone has got the virus if they’re asymptomatic, it would just make sure that our staff aren’t walking round and unintentionally passing the virus on if they did have it.
“So I can’t understand why extra care locations have been excluded from that mass testing.”
Edel Harris, CEO of learning disabilities charity Mencap, said: “At Mencap, we absolutely agree with that principle. We support over 5,000 people with a learning disability across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Most of those people live in supported living settings, not care homes, so we really are calling on the government to act and to make sure that everyone is prioritized for testing and has access to the rolling programme.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “In May we introduced large scale testing in care homes across Wales to prevent and manage outbreaks of Covid-19. Under this programme we tested both care home staff and residents.
“In June, based on SAGE advice, we introduced weekly testing of all staff in care homes across Wales, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, to monitor the ongoing transmission of Covid-19.
“We extended the weekly testing of staff in July and confirmed we would continue to closely monitor the data and reduce the cycle of testing to fortnightly from 10 August if prevalence rates remain low.”
The Department of Health and Social Care is yet to respond to the BBC’s report. The government also confirmed yesterday that its pledge to regularly test every care home resident and staff member for coronavirus has been delayed until September.