CARE HOME DEATHS: Fresh question raised as Stockton leader defend record
QUESTIONS have been raised over how a council has handled the number of deaths in care homes within its borough boundaries.
Almost all care homes across Stockton are privately-run and owned by companies.
But leaders of the authority’s Conservative opposition have accused the council of falling short in answering questions and taking measures to prevent infections a year on from the start of the pandemic.
Health leaders at the authority have pointed to how closely they’ve worked with the NHS and homes since the start of the crisis – with a new probe to be launched to review performance in the coming weeks.
Labour leader Cllr Bob Cook has also hit back – saying the council had done “everything possible” and opposition councillors should be asking questions of the Government.
Figures show there have been 167 covid deaths in care homes across the borough since the virus took hold.
Conservative leader Cllr Tony Riordan believed there had been “unnecessary infections and deaths” in homes throughout 2020.
He cast fire on the authority for failing to provide information requested on where the deaths had occurred.
And he accused the council of “stonewalling” and “creating ambiguity to thwart scrutiny” in responses to his questions.
Cllr Riordan said: “They have refused to disclose meaningful data to an elected member whose main aim is to act as a critical friend.
“The way Stockton Council has approached measures to prevent infection and death, provide meaningful data to elected members, and review the way they have tackled this appalling tragedy is simply not good enough.
“Family and friends who have lost their loved ones in care home settings need answers.
“I urge Stockton Council to accept that these issues are not going away, engage in proper scrutiny, and provide answers to family and friends who have lost their loved ones in care home settings.”
Council officials say data protection rules have prevented the sharing information on where care home deaths took place.
Last year, Stockton councillors held a review into discharge into care homes after hundreds of patients were sent to care homes without tests during the first wave.
It urged quicker turnaround of test results for staff and residents and closer working between different bodies.
Another probe will be held into “multi-agency support to care homes during the pandemic” – with a “task and finish group” to dig into how different homes, the NHS and the council have worked together.
A council report explained the new review would give an “opportunity to showcase the support provided by the council” as well as raise concerns which cropped up during the pandemic.
Cllr Riordan said he appreciated that most care homes in the borough were privately run – but he believed the council was “ultimately responsible for public health locally”.
He added: “The council has been responsible for administering Government guidelines, PPE and financial support, and as such it has taken the lead in tackling, prevention and management of this disease in our care home settings.
“I don’t know if the council could have done more – that was the purpose of the data request.
“The request was formulated to establish what was actually happening in our care homes.
“The fact that the council stonewalled my request heightened my concerns that something may be amiss.”
The group leader said the public had “a right to know” which care homes had been most affected by covid.
“Walking on eggshells”
Tuesday’s executive scrutiny heard more concerns from Conservative councillor Lynn Hall.
The member for Hartburn said she felt there was “very little scrutiny” of the council – and accused the authority of “knocking questions into the long grass”.
She claimed Stockton had seen a higher proportion of care home deaths than other areas of the Tees Valley and the North-east.
And she believed things were “going wrong”.
Cllr Hall said: “It’s very important as we as councillors have a care of duty to both our residents and the residents of care homes.
“We need to be asking questions.
“Not necessarily getting the answers in public – I’m quite happy for that to happen behind closed doors.
“But we definitely need to find out what the issues are.
“We need to help in any way we can to help (close) that gulf between friends and family who are on the outside feeling like they’re walking on eggshells.”
But Cllr Evaline Cunningham, chairwoman of the adult social care select committee, said she was not aware of all the information Cllr Hall had shared.
The Labour member added: “I was given a brief report that Cllr Hall was concerned about some things which were happening in care homes – and if we did a multidisciplinary review as a task and finish group, we could look into those concerns and deal with them.
“At no time had Cllr Hall shared any of the concerns she’d brought up apart from speaking shortly last week at the meeting.
“I am concerned that she is more or less saying I have not done the job.
“I followed the protocol.”
Cllr Cunningham told the committee agreed problems needed to be looked at and dealt with if there were any.
Support given and new probe
Ann Workman, the council’s director of adults and health, said the 167 deaths seen in the borough’s care homes had been very sad – and outlined the work which had gone on.
She added: “This tragic loss is in line with the experience across the North-east and is something I know care homes in the borough have fought tirelessly to prevent.
“We have worked closely with our NHS partners to support our care homes, and continue to do so, to provide all the advice, guidance and assistance we can.
“We are constantly reviewing whether there is anything more that can be done to help and as part of this I am grateful that the chair of the adult social care and health select committee, Cllr Cunningham, has agreed that the committee carry out a review of the multi-agency support provided to care homes during the pandemic.”
Ms Workman said the new probe would look at the role of all agencies supporting the borough’s care homes – including the council, the NHS, the Government and the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
The director added: “Of course, the vast majority of care homes in our borough are privately-owned – but as a council we’ve been in regular contact with all homes throughout the pandemic and we’ve provided them with a great deal of support.
“We’ve worked with NHS colleagues to deliver training for their staff, set up a multi-agency care home protection group to ensure effective joint working between care homes, the council and NHS, and made sure they’ve received all Government guidance throughout.
“We’ve also backed the borough’s care homes with extra funding, increasing the fees we pay them in recognition of the additional costs they’ve faced and supporting their response to the huge challenges they’ve been faced with.
“The review will take place as soon as possible and will be overseen by a cross-party group of councillors.
“Due to data protection laws, it will meet in closed session, and these laws are also why Cllr Riordan’s data requests had to be declined.”
Cllr Cook said the council had done everything possible – adding council teams rung care homes every other day now to check on them.
The council leader added: “We helped them with PPE when the Government fell short on it and we’ve increased care home fees by 10% so they’d have extra money.
“They are all in private ownership and, although we commission services to some of the care homes, it’s the CQC which inspects them and we ensure the inspections are kept up to date.
“We’ve done what we can – I’m not quite sure what they’re playing at.
“It would seem they’re trying to make a political point out of elderly people.
“For me, we’ve handled care homes as well as any council and in some places probably better.”
The leader believed council officers had “gone the extra mile”.
“Cllr Riordan may want to look into the Government’s role in this in not ensuring people were sent out of hospitals into care homes with covid tests,” said Cllr Cook.
“That probably caused more of the infections in care homes than anything.”
Cllr Riordan also raised worries about the “unacceptable” number of care home workers who’d declined vaccines in the borough.
Council figures from January showed more than 10% workers had turned jabs down in the borough.
Ms Workman said 1,519 of 1,814 care home staff in the borough had now been vaccinated.
She added: “That’s 81.5% of staff – which is above the Tees Valley, North-east and national averages.
“The vaccination roll-out is led nationally by the Government and NHS and, at present, the Government has not made vaccines mandatory for care home workers.
“Although councils aren’t leading the vaccine roll out, we have supported NHS efforts to encourage vaccination take-up.
“We’ve put on numerous forums for providers to discuss this, including one at which an invited GP speakers attended to dispel myths, and ensured national messages about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine have been shared with providers so they can share them with their staff.”
Words: Alex Metcalfe, Local Democracy Reporter
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