My Lords, occupancy levels are hard to measure precisely. However, data from providers indicate that occupancy rates in care homes for older people have been adversely affected by the pandemic. We have made over £6 billion available, through grants that are not ring-fenced, to help councils tackle the impact of Covid-19 on services, including adult social care. We have made it clear to councils that this funding can be used to help offset the impact of temporary reductions in occupancy.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Alzheimer’s Society is reporting that because of care home deaths and restrictions on visits during the pandemic, some families have had to defer placing their loved ones into care homes. Given this, how will the Government support the sector to ensure that occupancy rates rise again, other than by what he just said? How will this be monitored, given that I recently received an Answer to a Written Question that said the occupancy rates in care homes were not held by central government?
My Lords, I note the intelligence from the Alzheimer’s Society, but I emphasise it is not the responsibility of central government to raise the occupancy rates of care homes. This area is supplied mainly by the private market. Players may choose to leave the market if occupancy rates fall, and local councils have been provided with more than £6 billion that should be drawn on to support the sector.
My Lords, a number of unpaid at-home carers have told me that even though their relatives in dire need of care home residency have been offered places, they have turned them down because of heavily restricted family visits, the invidious 14-day quarantine rule and restrictions even on taking doubly vaccinated relatives for a walk in the spring sunshine. Will the Minister acknowledge that moving to a care home can be distressing, and depriving new residents of family support when settling in will inevitably impact on occupancy? When families liken taking up occupancy to sending relatives to prison, surely it is time to review guidance using today’s data, rather than as though Covid were still rampant and vaccines ineffective.
The noble Baroness makes a perfectly fair point. Moving into a care home is a difficult and potentially stressful experience. Moving in at a time of Covid, when, as the noble Baroness rightly points out, there are heavy restrictions, is very difficult. Those restrictions are in place to save lives. They are under constant review, and when the infection rates warrant leaving them behind, we will make that decision.
Will my noble friend join me in commending the excellent work of care staff during the appalling problems that have arisen over the past year during the pandemic? Will the Government urgently investigate the financial stability and debt levels of care home operators, which, too frequently, seem to have no controls on the amount of leverage, excessive debts or lack of equity in the sector?
My Lords, I absolutely join my noble friend in commending the incredible contribution of care home staff, domiciliary staff, unpaid care workers and all those who support loved ones, neighbours and residents. The Covid pandemic has shone a light on the selfless contribution of those people. The service continuity and care market review keeps a careful eye on the financial stability of the market. We are in constant contact with some of the biggest providers. The scene we see at the moment is not one that causes a huge amount of concern, but we keep close to the market.
My Lords, I declare my interests as outlined in the register in relation to the Outcomes First Group quality committee. Can the Minister explain how he will ensure that the Government work with the Care Quality Commission to see how we can deliver a strategy that promotes care home financial stability so that there are sufficient beds available this winter to enable the NHS to deliver suitable care for those on waiting lists, without older people having to go into hospital unnecessarily?
The noble Baroness makes a good point. There is always a tension in having enough beds in care so that those who need somewhere to be supported are not sent to hospital, thereby occupying valuable beds that should be used for elective surgery or other more complex and important procedures. We are working closely with the CQC to ensure that the right strategies are in place to deal with that.
The Minister knows we have continually raised our strong concerns about the financial stability of care homes. Now, the possibility of increased closures due to falling occupancy rates and the extra costs stemming from the pandemic have exacerbated the precarious situation the sector is in. With the downward trend in the registration of new care homes and the upward trend in closures, is not the resulting net reduction in the number of beds available deeply worrying at a time of known growth in the need for social care provision for older people? Can the Minister reassure the House that in the Queen’s Speech we will, at last, find out about the Prime Minister’s plans for how he is going to fix all this and what is going to be done to deliver long-term funding and sustainability for the social care sector?
My Lords, I have heard the noble Baroness and others express their concerns about the sector, but I reassure noble Lords that it is not in overall long-term decline. In fact, the number of care home beds has remained broadly constant over the last 10 years, with 460,000 in 2010 and 458,000 in April 2021. But I recognise the noble Baroness’s question, and it is right that we are going to bring forward recommendations for social care reform by the end of the year.
My Lords, a recent National Audit Office report highlighted how the Covid pandemic has adversely impacted the financial viability of care home providers, with occupancy rates falling significantly, as we have heard. Given this, could the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the much-needed financial support he has referred to, to stabilise this highly fragmented and fragile sector, gets to the front line and that there is equal treatment for all care home services, irrespective of whether they are local authority-funded or NHS-funded or whether residents are older people, younger adults of privately paying residents?
My Lords, we have written to local authorities to make it clear what the funding is there for and to make recommendations on the sort of financial support that may be needed to bridge this moment when occupancy levels have been reduced because of concerned families taking their loved ones out of care homes. That funding is in place, and it is up to local authorities to make their decisions on the matter.
My Lords, what has the impact of the pandemic been on those who choose to receive care in their own homes? With the rise of closures of private care homes and fewer public sector beds being available, have we got the balance in provision right?
My Lords, there is an important area of support for those who decide to have care at home. During the pandemic, we did an enormous amount to ensure that there were infection-safe procedures and to reduce the use of itinerant care workers in order to provide safety for those who were at home. Support for those who choose to be cared for at home should be increased. I do not recognise the idea that the number of beds in local authority care has reduced so far, but I am happy to look into the matter.
NHS England and Public Health England’s contingency planning for pandemics was strengthened after the SARS epidemic. Will the Minister put in the Library the minutes and documents that show what the NHS policy was in January 2020 on the transfer of people between care homes and hospitals and between hospitals and care homes during a pandemic?
Given the reluctance, post pandemic, to going into care homes, one would expect more vulnerable people to require support at home, and this is delivered in part using local authority funding. What advice is being given to the sector by Her Majesty’s Government, and what measures are being taken to ensure that this need can be met?
My Lords, as I mentioned earlier, DHSE has written to local authorities explaining how we recommend some of the unring-fenced £6 billion could be spent to support both those in social care residential situations and those at home. That is the correct mechanic for guiding the spending of the money, but it is the responsibility of local authorities, not of central government, to provide the support that the noble Baroness describes.