Elderly and vulnerable people still at risk from poor advice from some care homes, says UNISON

Clear guidance must be rigorously applied

Some care companies are still failing to give staff accurate guidance on using personal protective equipment (PPE) – creating serious dangers for workers, care home residents and the elderly living in their own homes, says UNISON today (Monday).

Concerned care staff working in residential homes are telling the union they’re being denied access to vital kit because it’s locked away, or their employers say they don’t need it because no-one has Covid-19 symptoms. But UNISON says this is in clear breach of Public Health England (PHE) guidance.

The latest PHE guidance for care homes states that staff should wear face masks when providing personal care “which requires them to be in direct contact with the residents or within 2 metres of a resident who is coughing”.

But UNISON says these national guidelines are not sufficiently clear nor comprehensive enough. As a result, workers up and down the country are being told incorrectly by unscrupulous employers that safety clothing such as masks aren’t necessary.

Many workers have told UNISON their employers are still not issuing them with any, or enough, vital PPE such as masks, gloves, aprons and gowns.

Some care home employers are informing staff that PPE is not to be used until there are confirmed cases of Covid-19 in their workplace, which means they are carrying out close personal care without any protection, says UNISON.

Other staff say supply shortages mean they have to wear masks all day, including going from room to room which potentially increases the risk of spreading the virus to those most in danger. A number have been told they don’t need protection in communal areas of care homes, despite continuing to be among the residents.

UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Care workers simply don’t feel safe, either for themselves, their families or the vulnerable people relying on them every day.

“Covid-19 is rife in care homes across the UK with thousands dying before their time when we’ve known of the risks for weeks. But staff are still not being given the PPE they need to cut the risks.

“Some tell us their employers are doing the right thing, but many ​care workers are being put in danger because what they’re being told is plain wrong. They feel helpless because they’re often on low pay and are left to choose between risking their health or paying their bills.

“We need clear, simple and easily accessible guidance so staff know exactly what kit they’re entitled to and feel more confident to challenge employers refusing to provide it.”

UNISON says all care staff should have clear, easy-to-understand guidance and employers should be compelled to make this available and properly applied.

The union has written to PHE requesting detailed advice on a number of issues to help care staff, including whether new masks should be worn each time a worker gives personal care. UNISON is continuing to lobby PHE in an attempt to clarify the guidance.

The union has launched a petition demanding the government step up and deliver on its promises around PPE and do much more to protect care staff and elderly people.

In emails to UNISON’s PPE alert web page, care home workers speak of:

  • “Facemasks and aprons being hidden away from staff, and gloves rationed to ‘save on money’. I’m outraged that my life and my family’s lives are at greater risk because certain staff and managers want to play a game of Russian roulette.”
  • “I’ve been wearing a face mask on shift and have now been informed I can no longer wear it outside of residents’ rooms. As most residents congregate in common areas, this is making me feel very uneasy and unsafe for both residents and me.”
  • We’ve asked if we can have masks and visors but were told head office is following government guidelines and will only give them out when they suspect someone might have Covid-19.”
  • “I really want someone to explain why we’re not wearing masks and other PPE before an outbreak or a display of symptoms. There’s a five-day incubation period where symptoms do not display themselves, but the virus is very contagious in these five days. In a care home, such as the one I work in that amount of time would be disastrous… we’re lambs to the slaughter.”
  • “We have gloves and aprons but haven’t been provided with any masks. We’ve been told by managers not to wear them and they’re holding them at head office until anyone gets symptoms. Another home in the same company has had several deaths. Staff believe we should be preventing deaths by wearing masks. We’re terrified we’ll bring it into the home, and we work in such close contact with the vulnerable people we support and with other staff.”
  • “Because of the lack of proper PPE, we‘ve no choice but to use bin bags to protect ourselves. We’ve already had some residents die and some staff have had the virus.”
  • “I do single shifts (7 hours) as well as a long day (14 hours). We’re allowed only one mask for each shift.
  • “A few weeks ago residents in our supported living place were ill. Staff didn’t have enough equipment (masks) and managers were laughing at those trying to make their own. Now I’ve come in to work after being off sick and several residents are in hospital with suspected coronavirus. But staff who were on the shifts with those people are still in work, not self-isolating. When I asked why no one informed me, the manager said they ‘had more important things to do’”.

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