Removing COVID restrictions – what will be the effect on the Social Care Sector?

The vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions are set to be removed in England on 19 July.  It’s worth noting that deaths in care homes with the involvement of COVID-19 have reduced substantially in recent months – see here for the most recent ONS statistics on reported deaths from care homes. But will this downward trend continue once restrictions are removed generally across the population, especially in view of rising infection levels? 

There are some positive aspects to the easing of restrictions. In respect of visitors, until now care home residents have been limited to five named visitors, and only two visitors at any one time/on any one day.  That restriction is set to be lifted and no doubt this will be welcomed by residents and their friends and family after a year of very limited contact with the world outside their home or setting. 

However increased visitors to homes will also bring with it a risk of bringing in COVID infections to homes, especially in view of the rocketing levels of infection across the general population. How then can homes protect their residents against this?  Mask requirements are set to be lifted albeit now with a hint that the responsibility for wearing masks rests with individuals. The government has so far been silent as to whether face masks will remain mandatory for visitors and staff,  although Care Minister Helen Whatley hinted that this could remain.  It would seem sensible for individual homes and settings to retain PPE requirements such as wearing masks – albeit this then transfers responsibility for controlling this to the homes themselves. 

This is even more pertinent given the vulnerability of residents.  Care homes and settings are likely to be home to residents who are Clinically Extremely Vulnerable and who either may not be able to have the COVID-19 vaccine for medical reasons, or may not have a strong reaction to the vaccine, meaning they have less protection against infection. 

What then of the situation with care home staff being vaccinated?  The government has announced plans for compulsory vaccination of all social care staff unless medically exempt from October onwards.  Whilst this seems sensible in view of the above and the need to protect residents, but equally it may lead to staff leaving the sector, which is already hugely under resourced due to the effect of Brexit and immigration controls.  This mandatory vaccination rule will also apply to people coming into the home such as tradespeople or volunteers or persons providing services in the home or setting like hairdressing.  It is unclear whether that might affect homes providing additional services for residents. 

With the easing of restrictions at the same time as increasing levels of infection generally there may be pressure put upon the testing system as well as increasing levels of self isolation for staff – albeit the NHS Test and Trace app is due to be tweaked to make it less sensitive to potential contact with infected persons. 

It remains to be seen how care homes and residential settings will fare in the easing of lockdown restrictions and whether this will lead to rising infections and deaths of residents and staff.  Care Providers should carefully consider whether to retain precautions such as mandatory PPE requirements for staff and visitors.  The forthcoming requirement for mandatory vaccination of staff removes responsibility from providers to have to enforce this themselves but it’s unclear whether that might lead to further staffing shortages . There is a potential for complaints and claims and it also has to be borne in mind that Care Providers will be operating on the whole without  PL COVID-19 insurance cover.

Written by Jennifer Johnston at BLM jennifer.johnston@blmlaw.com
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