Life on the frontline: Home care provider shares lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

Alex Collier cropped

Beloved Homecare is a family-run provider of domiciliary care based in Greater Manchester. Rated ‘Outstanding’ by the CQC, the company employs 50 members of the local community and delivers personalised packages of care and support to 70 individuals in the Trafford area.

In this article, HR director Alex Collier shares how the company has coped with the pandemic so far, lessons learned and advice for those providers who are struggling through the crisis.

How we coped

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Before COVID-19 broke out in the UK, we had ample stockpiles of gloves, aprons and face masks. We were ahead of the game in terms of PPE, having opened five new supplier accounts in preparation for the worst case scenario, after watching the breakout in other European countries like Spain and Italy. We also bought a digital thermometer, to test clients and staff temperatures if there was any uncertainty. Our staff were wearing masks and visors at an early stage.

At the outset of the pandemic, we contacted each client or their family member(s) to assure them that we had sufficient and the right type of PPE. We were conscious that we did not want to frighten our elderly clients by arriving at their homes in masks and face visors. Where a client had companionship calls, we were guided by families as to whether they wanted their loved ones to go out or stay at home.

We appealed also to families to limit or stop visits that were of a non-essential nature and we arranged Facetime calls to families during the carers visits. Essential shopping and visits to the chemist were completed by members of staff and we took the strain off the families and clients by assuming more day to day responsibilities.

As the cases in the UK grew, five of our staff received a ‘shielding’ letter from the NHS, informing them that they must isolate immediately. This led to us losing 10% of our workforce almost overnight, but we got through it. This is where the true spirit of teamwork really started to shine through. Shifts were covered and staff picked up extra hours.

Shortly after the letters were sent, we were able to invite four new employees onto a socially distanced training induction. The fast track DBS service was a real help – checks were being completed in two to three days instead of the usual 1-60 days. Because of this, we were able to get new starters trained and working in a much shorter time frame. This significantly helped to ease up some of the pressures.

Lessons learned

Throughout the whole pandemic, even now, clear communication has been vital. We have focused on the guidance from the government, Public Health England, Care Quality Commission (CQC), our local authority, United Kingdom Homecare Association (UKHCA) and Home Care Insight.

Our managing director, Mark Collier, took sole responsibility for reading and digesting the huge amounts of information which was sent and available to care providers. He filtered and disseminated this information daily to all staff in concise communications and made himself available to take calls from any staff members during the hours of 7am to 11pm, seven days a week. This included updates on items such as PPE, personal hygiene and new policies and procedures.

Selective members of the management team continued to attend the office and social distance in order to show frontline staff leadership and visibility. They would deliver items of PPE, towels, wipes and hand gel to staff whose supplies were running low, stressing the importance of personal hygiene.

A couple of our staff contracted COVID-19, but, thankfully, the symptoms were mild and they have recovered. One of our clients, a 99 year-old lady, went into hospital with a non-COVID-19 related matter and ended up testing positive for the virus a week after admission to hospital. Five weeks later, she was back at home and COVID free.

In addition to this, we had a client come out of hospital whilst still recovering from the virus. Some of the staff were understandably nervous about visiting her, but with the proper PPE, guidance and protocols, everything ran smoothly. She is now progressing well.

On May 18, her daughter commented: “My mum has been in the care of Beloved Homecare for some time now. I can honestly say she is getting the best care possible. The staff are all wonderful with her. She looks upon them as friends. Nothing is too much trouble for them and in view of the fact that they have looked after her whilst having COVID-19 is remarkable.”

Such feedback helps to boost morale and give staff a sense of duty and purpose. It reminds us all as to why we do such a stressful but rewarding job.

Advice for other providers

For those providers – our colleagues in the industry – who are still struggling, our message is this; keep going, it will get better.

And be tenacious with PPE, it is out there. Mark would be on the phone for hours sourcing stock, so keep going, you will find some. Note that there is no VAT to be paid at present on PPE and there is now much more PPE available, so be bold and negotiate price reductions and extended payment terms with suppliers.

Make use of all the government help that is available, including the Small Business Rate Relief Grant via your local authority, and talk to your bank about Bounce Back Loans and Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme. You could consider taking capital loan repayment holidays on existing loans.

You may wish to think about furloughing staff and exploring the Government’s Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme. Your accountant should know about all these various schemes and help that is available to businesses. Look at everything your business spends on a monthly basis and if the spend is non-essential think about cutting it.

Talk to your local authority and also to the CQC – they are very receptive to helping you, and speak to other providers in your locality to see if you can collaborate and assist each other.

As we’ve passed the peak of COVID-19, there are still unanswered questions: When will shielding staff be allowed to resume work? How long will this level of PPE be needed? Is home care now going to be a more favourable option for families rather than a residential home? Is this the new norm?  Only time will tell.

What is certain is what we’ve learned from this pandemic. We have learned that communication is vital. What’s also important is having clear objectives for all staff to work towards, focusing on the most important issues at the time. And, finally, questions. Encourage staff to ask questions. We don’t want any misunderstandings, so create an environment whereby staff feel comfortable to ask questions, and be available to answer those questions when they do.

Sarah Clarke

The author Sarah Clarke

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