The government’s top scientific advisers discussed care homes only twice between January and May, according to newly published minutes.
Records for meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or Sage, which is the key group of experts advising ministers on how to react to the Covid-19 outbreak, reveal a lack of discussion about the risks facing care homes.
Between January and May, Sage minutes mention care homes only twice, before the start of lockdown in the UK and weeks before the numbers of deaths made headlines across the country.
Shadow care minister Liz Kendall said she was concerned not enough action had been taken and added: “It is clear that social care and the NHS were not treated equally, nor as two sides of the same coin.”
James Bullion, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services said the publication of the minutes "appears to reinforce the impression that social care has been an afterthought – a secondary consideration after the NHS. This cannot continue."
He added: "Over the coming weeks, the government must show the same determination to protect social care that it did to protect the NHS in the first phase because every life matters. Protecting older people, disabled people, their families, and care staff must now be the government’s number one priority."
While the formal minutes do not capture the full range of discussion during the meetings, they do note the topics and issues raised and actions to be taken.
On 3 March, Sage discussed the need for social distancing to halt the spread of the virus and appeared to recognise the challenge facing care homes to protect residents living in them.
The minutes said: “Social distancing for over-65s is likely to have a significant effect on overall deaths and peak demand for critical care beds, but will not significantly reduce overall transmission.
“This would be most effective for those living independently; it will be a challenge to implement this measure within communal settings such as care homes.”
On 10 March, Sage appeared to note the social care sector needed specific attention.
In its actions the minutes said: “Sage advised that special policy consideration be given to care homes and various types of retirement communities (where residents are more independent).”
But a specific action plan for social care was not released by the government until mid-April, after criticism over the rising numbers of deaths in nursing homes.
The care home sector has been hit hard by Covid-19, with almost 40 per cent of care homes reporting a Covid-19 outbreak with more than 11,000 deaths of residents linked to the virus.
The government has also faced stinging criticism from care leaders who revealed a £600m infection-control fund stopped them spending the money on protective equipment for staff. The Association of Directors of Social Services said rules around the fund were “confused and unnecessarily bureaucratic”.
Ministers are also under pressure on testing for care home staff and residents, with only a third of care home staff being tested for the virus with just days to go before a 6 June deadline for testing all staff in the care sector.
Shadow care minister Liz Kendall said she was concerned that too little action had been taken.
She said: “It is hugely concerning that so little attention was paid to the threat coronavirus posed to care home residents and staff, despite the evidence and warnings that were already emerging from other countries.
“It is clear that social care and the NHS were not treated equally, nor as two sides of the same coin. The government must learn lessons from the subsequent crisis in care homes and ensure that in future, social care gets the focus, priority and resources it deserves.”
The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.