Care homes are regularly waiting more than a week for coronavirus test results, providers say, despite a Government commitment that staff will be tested weekly.
The Government pledged in July that staff would be tested each week and residents monthly, but delays are said to be hindering regular testing.
Results are also coming back void or inconclusive and it is feared that asymptomatic staff could be unknowingly spreading Covid-19 while they wait for their results.
The National Care Forum, which represents 120 of the UK’s social care charities, said testing has been repeatedly acknowledged as being at the heart of managing the spread of Covid-19 to vulnerable residents.
Executive director Vic Rayner said: “The Government says all the right things in relation to priorities, but we are still seeing members regularly reporting delays of a week or more in relation to getting the results of their tests.
“Things are improving, but if this is a juggernaut on the turn the Government needs to put a lot more hard spin on the wheel to get the prioritisation of test results in care settings to feel like a meaningful commitment on the ground.”
HC-One, which has 329 UK care homes, said it waited more than a week for 1,003 test results between September 19 and 25, affecting 12 homes.
The average turnaround for results was four days, which the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed was the average overall wait during two weeks in September.
Over the same period, 746 tests were returned with void results.
Currently a fifth of its homes (70) are experiencing an outbreak, and 126 are closed to visitors.
A spokeswoman said: “HC-One has long highlighted the importance and value of routine testing for colleagues and residents as testing is absolutely key in mitigating the risk of the virus spreading into care homes.
“It is only through regular staff and resident testing, alongside wider infection control measures, that we can help keep care homes safe and identify asymptomatic carriers at the earliest opportunity.”
Mike Padgham, managing director of St Cecilia’s Care Group in North Yorkshire, said its four homes are waiting up to five days for results, which makes it “very difficult” to keep testing staff weekly.
He said: “There is no doubt that staffing is the biggest issue facing us at the current time.
“Given that the Government has had six months to get proper testing of key workers in place, it is a scandal that we are struggling in this way and very worrying, especially as we are approaching winter, when traditionally healthcare is put under extra strain.”
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said reliable and accurate testing is one of the most effective ways to protect care homes.
He added: “Waiting for a week for test results is problematic on so many fronts and we urge the Government to do all that it can to speed up the process and work with the sector to deliver the best possible outcomes.”
The GMB union warned that leaving staff untested for weeks could lead to rocketing care home deaths.
Kelly Andrews, GMB care lead, said: “If even the big providers are struggling with testing – where does this leave smaller companies who can’t close down homes to protect their vulnerable clients?”
She added: “Leaving staff untested for weeks at a time is a recipe for disaster. Not only are workers put at risk, but it could lead to care home deaths rocketing.”
Public Health England data suggests there were 134 care homes with confirmed or suspected coronavirus outbreaks in the week ending September 22.
A DHSC spokesman said: “We continue to prioritise care homes for repeat retesting, and any care home resident or member of staff with symptoms is able to immediately access a free test with more than 120,000 sent out every day.
“Between September 3 and 16, more than 700,000 tests were carried out at care homes with the average time for results less than four days.
“Through our Adult Social Care Winter Plan, we are providing free PPE to care homes and have ring-fenced over £1.1 billion to support providers through our Infection Control Fund.”