In Cambridgeshire 69 out of 131 care homes record outbreak of coronavirus but county council rejects call for independent inquiry
- Credit: Image by Sabine van Erp from Pix
An independent review of excess deaths in Cambridgeshirs care homes was rejected by the county council.
The leader of the council’s Labour group, Cllr Elisa Meschini, put forward a motion to a full session of Cambridgeshire County Council on Tuesday (July 21), calling for an independent report, but the motion was rejected by the county’s ruling Conservative group.
The motion called for an independent report “covering Cambridgeshire and Peterborough on what happened to cause excess care home deaths between March and June 2020, how and where the infection arrived into care homes from, and the lessons learnt”.
The motion said that as of July 2, 69 out of 131 Cambridgeshire care homes had recorded an outbreak of the virus, and that death figures indicate “a large number of excess deaths” during the pandemic in care homes.
Cllr Meschini said: “This motion is not an attack on either this local authority or local authorities in general. Local authorities have been unable, despite their best efforts, to stem the tide of infection of this virus when they have been starved of funds themselves for the best part of 10 years and also when they have been under the latest information of this government, whose approach has been rather centralised.”
She warned “care homes will be once again on the frontline if and when there is a second spike,” and said the council’s Conservative administration should not put themselves “in the situation of being accused of not acting when they had the opportunity to do so”.
“We need to lead, and we need to be seen as a trailblazer of best practice when the lives of our most vulnerable are at stake,” she said.
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Responding for the Conservatives, the chairman of the council’s adults committee, Anna Bailey, described the request as “well intentioned” but said “I fear if we pass it we are going to expend an awful lot of time and energy and learn very little new that will lead to any change in practice that hasn’t already been made”.
She said the Labour group is “absolutely right to interrogate this subject. On the face of it, the care home statistics in Cambridgeshire do warrant further investigation.”
But she warned the data has “severe limitations,” and said a high rate of testing may be linked to the number of recorded outbreaks, which she also said can include suspected cases.
“Our local public health team reports that on excess deaths the trend in Cambridgeshire is broadly similar to that seen nationally,” she said, arguing the assertion there has been “a large number” of excess deaths in Cambridgeshire care homes is “simply not what we have been told by our public health team”.
“What actually matters is: did we do everything we could at a local level with the information we had available at the time to protect people?” she said. “And I truly believe that in Cambridgeshire we did. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. At the time people were being discharged from hospital it was totally unknown that people could be carrying the disease asymptomatically. Testing wasn’t yet widely available, asymptomatic testing didn’t begin until July 3, and from April 15 all residents were tested prior to being admitted to a care home. This council has been very widely praised for its proactive and supportive work with providers during this pandemic.”
She said the council “followed the guidance to the letter” and had “gone way beyond many other local authorities in terms of support to care homes”.
“With the best will in the world, attempting to determine how the infection, which can be borne asymptomatically, entered into every care home that reported an outbreak is an impossible task, and even if it were possible it wouldn’t change the practice that we have in place nowadays,” she said.
Labour councillor Linda Jones said: “It is about not being defensive. And what I heard from Cllr Bailey was a lot of defensiveness, which disappoints me enormously.”
She added: “It seems to me that we have got a climate in which our health system and our care system wants to learn, but the county council is not prepared to lead that process, and I find that extraordinarily, not only disappointing, but rather perplexing.”
Conservative councillor Lynda Harford said there were lessons to be learned, but that, as the council was following national guidance, the government should conduct its own review first.
“I don’t believe this is the right time,” she said, adding “the questions that you are asking will need to be answered, but I do think that initially those need to come from central government”.
She also cast doubt on the national guidelines.
“Everybody was in a place where they were responding to national guidelines, and I’m not sure that those national guidelines were helpful at the time,” she said, adding “I do think there will be some lessons that we need to learn about how we respond to instruction in the future”.
Cllr Meschini wrapped up the debate, agreeing with Cllr Bailey’s point that excess deaths may not have been abnormally high in Cambridgeshire.
“Nothing about Cambridgeshire in particular was remarkable in terms of us either being particularly good or particularly bad, or particularly fortunate or particularly unfortunate,” she said. “We want to do this because we want to lead.”
She also agreed the numbers “don’t tell a clear cut story,” but said that is another reason to review the situation.
“I’m not entirely sure we know everything we need to know,” she said.
The motion was supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the council’s independents, but voted down by the Conservatives.