Care homes in Wales are on a “war footing” because of desperate staff shortages caused by the skyrocketing Covid infection rate.
According to Mario Kreft MBE, the chair of Care Forum Wales, the sector is facing its worst ever crisis with reports that 75 per cent of staff were off work in some homes, either because they had contracted Coronavirus or they were self-isolating.
The situation is so bad that as a last resort homes were introducing “firebreaks” to temporarily restrict visiting as the highly infectious Omicron variant tore across Wales.
Domiciliary care companies were also struggling badly and were often unable to provide the usual level of care.
Mr Kreft warned that the situation was only going to get worse before things got better.
So much so, that some care homes were likely to be forced to declare an NHS-style “critical incident” because they were unable to cope.
But he feared reinforcements might not be available because statutory organisations like local health boards and councils were also short of staff.
Mr Kreft said: “The scale of the challenge is one we have never faced before. It’s really, really tough out there.
“The First Minister reminded us in 2020 that the social care sector was in a fragile state before the pandemic because of its precarious finances and the shortage of staff.
“After two year of this, the pressures have been building up and now we’re facing a completely different challenge because the Omicron strain of Covid is so prevalent and so transmissible.
“As a result, we’re seeing problems we’ve not encountered before.
“Care Forum Wales members have been reporting being down by up to 75 per cent in terms of staffing shifts. We’re on a war footing.
“The social care workforce has been heroic right through this pandemic. It’s taken a pandemic for people to realise how essential these workers are – just in the same way as the NHS and other services.
“They are rising to the challenge but it’s incredibly difficult and it’s probably going to get much worse before it gets better.
“It’s quite possible that some care homes will have to call on the statutory services. There are plans in place and we have been working with Welsh Government and our colleagues in health boards and local government.
“We may have to declare what the NHS would call a critical incident and in that case the only place you can go is the statutory agencies.
“The trouble is that we all know they are suffering like everybody else at the moment so whether there would be people available to alleviate the crisis, I don’t know.
“What we are talking about is making sure that people are as comfortable and as safe as they can be.
“This also applies to our domiciliary care workers who are facing similar challenges, so the visits to people’s homes may not be as long or as often as they might have been until we get through this.
“Nobody understands the importance of care home visiting better than those that run and work in care homes. It’s essential to people’s wellbeing and we’ve had decades of open house visiting without any appointments.
“The last two years have been incredibly challenging and I think people need to understand that safe visiting currently also requires a staffing input which makes it even more difficult if you are short of staff and don’t have the capacity to ensure safe visiting.
“I don’t think there have been any situations where people haven’t been allowed to visit for people in very extreme circumstances.
“I think what we’ll see is firebreaks or temporary pauses in terms of visiting individual care homes.
“The responsibility is clearly with the registered manager and the organisation running each setting.
“All the registered providers have legal responsibilities towards their residents and they also have responsibility for the health and safety of their own staff.
“I think what we’ll see – and we’re starting to see it already – is that visiting will be restricted for a period of days or a week or so because quite simply there will not be the staff to ensure safe visiting.
“The other added complication is that care homes are now unable to secure insurance against Covid-related claims so they really cannot afford to take any risks.
“But as soon as we and ensure safe visiting again, we will revert to that. That’s what people have been doing over Christmas and New Year. All I would ask from people is understanding because it is such a difficult time.”