Chorley care home boss condemns "war zone" characterisation of the sector during Covid crisis
It's January 2020 and the Chorley village of Croston could hardly seem further away from talk of a ‘mystery pneumonia’ emerging in a little-known province of China.
For residents and staff of the Croston Park nursing home, it must have felt half a world away – and at the time, of course, it was.
But the boss of the company which runs the 56-bed facility feared the prospect that the disease could travel from Central China to Central Lancashire in fairly short order and began to stockpile personal protective equipment for staff – supplies of which he describes as still being “ample” today.
“We also locked down two weeks earlier than the government told us to and I think that’s been a major plus point in terms of keeping us Covid free,” says Chris Mitchell, chair of Park Lane Healthcare.
“While none of us ever wanted anything like this to happen, the care home sector has - under the radar - been dealing for years with the norovirus and flu every winter, and MRSA, which was once seen as almost as bad as Covid-19.”
But Chris says he is not seeking to claim any kind of exceptionalism on his part – but to stress the worth of what he believes is an undervalued corner of society’s social contract with the elderly and vulnerable. He also wants to paint a different picture of daily life within care homes during the pandemic to the one of "a warzone" which he claims has gained traction in the media.
“If you were in those four walls at Croston Park, you wouldn’t know there was a crisis going on outside of them. There might not be relatives milling around, but we’ve still got a good atmosphere - karaoke, old films and the usual clowning around.
“There are heroes all over the country delivering this kind of care – some with the disease sadly in their home, but many without it – and yet nobody is shouting from the rooftops about that, instead it’s all about the daily diet of deaths and sadness.
“Every death is a tragedy and one too many but [that sole focus] is disrespectful to all the fantastic work that goes on in care homes.”
The most recent figures show that almost one in three of the 529 care homes across Lancashire have had at least one reported case of coronavirus. Across the UK, total Covid-related deaths in care homes stand at over 9,700, but the weekly number is beginning to decline.
Pressed about whether those figures reflect the random nature of coronavirus spread through the care home sector, Chris accepts that he cannot claim “that luck won’t come into it”. However, he says that the precautions his firm has taken have more than played their part keeping the company’s seven care homes Covid-free.
“Because Croston is a village and most of our staff work in and around the village, they all know one another and are all very careful [to follow public health guidance].
“If they were misbehaving in terms of carelessness when they’re outside work, we’d know by now - and I genuinely believe that they’d whistleblow on one another, because they’d see it as letting the team down.”
Chris says that random testing of staff and residents will be the “silver bullet” in keeping coronavirus out of those care homes which are currently free of it – but says that he is “still waiting” to access the government’s promised capacity for such a service.
However, any patients discharged from hospital now come with a negative Covid test – and are then quarantined within Croston Park for 14 days before being allowed to mix with others.
Park Lane refused to admit discharged patients in other areas of the country in which it operates, where some councils had attempted to move individuals into the firm’s care homes before that testing regime was in place – something which is now regarded as a key reason for the outbreak in the sector. Chris insists that such a request was never made of him by local authorities in Lancashire.
When this crisis is finally over, Chris wants care homes to be remembered for all they achieved, as well as reflect on the undoubted trauma which so many of their staff and residents will have experienced.
“We always wanted to be front and centre as a sector, but not like this. We have always played second fiddle to the NHS, which does a great job - but so do our staff.
“As tough as it is for everybody at the moment [in the care sector], the media is showing a jaundiced view and not a measured, balanced view – and that’s my worry. Care homes need to be supported and not seen, as in one comment I heard, as a ‘war zone’ – a terrible [thing to say].”