Staff and residents in care homes for people over 65 or with dementia will be regularly tested for coronavirus from next week, the Government has announced.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said on Friday that staff will be tested weekly, while residents will receive a test every 28 days as part of a new social care testing strategy.
This is in addition to intensive testing in any care home facing an outbreak or at increased risk of a flare-up, it added.
The repeat testing programme will be rolled out to all care homes for the over-65s and those with dementia which have registered to receive retesting over the next four weeks before expanding to the entire care home sector from August.
It has been broadly welcomed by the care sector, but some providers have said the move comes too late, while others said testing needs to take place twice a week.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Our response to this global pandemic has always been led by the latest scientific advice from world-class experts, and we will now offer repeat testing to staff and residents in care homes, starting with homes for elderly residents before expanding to the entire care home sector.
“This will not only keep residents and care workers safe, but it will give certainty and peace of mind to the families who may be worried about their loved ones, and give staff the confidence to do what they do best.”
The Government has faced criticism for failing to protect care homes from the virus.
There have been 14,658 deaths linked to Covid-19 in care homes across England and Wales registered up to June 19, according to the latest Office for National Statistics data.
A National Audit Office report last month claimed that around 25,000 hospital patients were discharged into care homes in England at the height of the pandemic without all being tested for Covid-19.
The new testing strategy comes following the latest advice from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and new evidence indicating a higher prevalence in care homes, the DHSC said.
The Vivaldi 1 study, which surveyed almost 9,000 care home managers and analysed data from whole care home testing, identified the higher levels of the virus among care staff – particularly among temporary staff working in multiple care settings, it added.
The study suggested that care home staff may be at increased risk of contracting the virus, which they could then pass on to others if they have no symptoms, the DHSC said.
Care England chief executive Professor Martin Green said: “The testing programme is one of the cornerstones of Covid-19 prevention, and we are pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care has recognise this, and responded with a comprehensive approach to repeat testing.”
Vic Rayner, executive director of National Care forum, said: “Access to repeat and regular testing is absolutely central to support care homes in managing the spread of infection within care homes.
“Testing has proved to be a vital tool in the box for providers and the continued expansion of the testing regime is essential.”
But NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said monthly tests for residents “falls very short” of experts’ recommendations for tests to take place bi-weekly.
“There is clearly a challenge in terms of securing the testing capacity that is required but addressing that must be an urgent priority as part of a wider test and trace strategy,” he said.
And Sam Monaghan, chief executive of Methodist Homes (MHA), the country’s largest charitable provider of care homes, said: “This announcement is welcome but in reality is far too late and really needs to include agency workers in the cohort of those being tested.
“We know how vulnerable care home residents are and I wonder how many lives might have been saved had we had this regular testing months ago.”
Providers now need localised data, he added, saying MHA closed its Leicester homes two weeks before the local lockdown, based on media reports.