Claire Udy, Leader of the Progressive Portsmouth People Group on Portsmouth City Council, speaks to S&C Founding Editor Tom Sykes about local authorities’ responses to COVID-19 and the need for a full inquiry into care home deaths.
Tom Sykes: You’ve been vocal about the high rate of care home deaths in the city. What in your view has gone so wrong here?
Claire Udy: My concern – and I kicked off over this – is that care home residents showing symptoms were not being tested despite assurances from the government to the contrary. As was the case across the country, residents were being sent to hospital and then being sent back into the homes without testing. Now because of public outrage every care home is eligible for testing. But COVID’s going to get worse as the weather improves and more people are out mingling. In care homes it’s still spreading too easily.
A friend of mine who works for a local, Council-run care home has had COVID. They’re a couple of years younger than me so they’re alright now, but they were knocked for six. As far as we know, no staff have died in care homes locally.
Did the Council have much in the way of preparations in place before the pandemic struck?
This is what I want to find out. The Council seem to think they were prepared. As far as I’m aware, the Council’s PPE deliveries were quite slow at the beginning. There’s been a lot of them but some of the kit, the Tiger goggles, had to be recalled – and this was a national problem.
Another friend of mine, a nurse for Solent NHS Trust, told me they saw their colleague – a home visit nurse – on BBC South Today in full PPE; a face shield and a big blue suit. My friend then went on Twitter and wrote, ‘LOL I’ve just seen this and all I’ve been given is a flimsy plastic apron and a shit face mask.’
We need answers about these failures from not only the Council but the CCG [Clinical Commissioning Group].
Hampshire has had the highest number of care home deaths across the country. Why do you think that is?
Maybe having a higher elderly population than other regions is part of it. And trying to distance people in care homes is hard – care workers are unable to change PPE between different rooms and when attending to different residents.
I feel like people are being effectively murdered as a result of these failures in testing, tracking and PPE. While a lot of care home residents are coming to the end of their lives, we have no right to just put them on a respirator and hope for the best. Healthcare professionals are making the most informed decisions they can under extreme pressure, but I’d rather someone get tested and be diagnosed with COVID before they’re put on an end-of-life pathway rather than saying we think they have COVID so let’s put them on that pathway now. That was happening because the government were so slow to roll out testing. Boris Johnson and the government must take full responsibility for that.
The hospitals aren’t going to take in, say, a 90-year-old, who is symptomatic with COVID when they know they can send them back to the care home because they’ll get that end-of-life care at a care home, so why take up a hospital bed? But that will then increase infections in the care homes.
What should local authorities be doing now to improve the situation?
There needs to be a full inquiry. There should be scrutiny of the staff, the managers and the political decision makers. I would like to see all the staff questioned anonymously so that they can air their opinions without risk of comeback. We need to establish whether the Council did a good enough job. Were the Council prepared for it? I’d guess that no council in Britain was as prepared as it could have been. I know at Portsmouth we have a good local resilience forum, a good gold team and a good disaster team, but their main concern would be radiation leaks from a nuclear submarine coming into the harbour. It’s never happened but if it ever does everyone living within a mile radius has to shut their windows and take an iodine pill. Nobody expected a pandemic to happen, though. The government did, as we now know, but whether they passed that on to local government, I don’t know.
Just as the virus was reaching the UK, the government pushed a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that was heavily criticised, so they did a kind of U-turn by introducing the lockdown. What’s your take on that?
I don’t think they U-turned, they just haven’t spoken about ‘herd immunity’ since. Now people are allowed to spend more time outside they’ll go to the beach now it’s hot. Are we allowed to go in the water? I’d love to! But that’s setting up a whole dangerous Jaws scenario. People might flock to tourist destinations like Bournemouth even though the leader of their council said to please stay away.
How are your colleagues on the Council reacting to the crisis?
I think the Council is doing a good job under difficult circumstances. We can’t really influence national decisions, but we can step up and say we don’t think they are right. And we’re observing the rules as best we can. Gerald [Vernon-Jackson, Leader of Portsmouth City Council], for instance, is having to shield because his husband’s having to shield. Other cabinet members are shielding due to their age or family commitments. It’s been easier for others who don’t have those issues or commitments to keep doing the sort of work they were doing before. Cal [Corkery, Labour] helped me out the other day with delivering meals I’d cooked at home for Helping Hands Portsmouth [a voluntary group that supports the homeless and vulnerable in the city]. I know some Tory councillors have been volunteering as well. Personally, I can’t do as much as I would like as my kids are off school and need looking after at home.
Are the failures you’ve talked about entirely the responsibility of the authorities? Is anyone else to blame?
If you’re a member of the Conservative Party – and I mean a member of the party, not of the cabinet – and you’re watching this disaster go down without feeling any anger towards the government, you are complicit in the disaster, in my view.
Coming soon in the next part of this interview, Claire discusses the challenge of workplace safety, Portsmouth police’s enforcement of the lockdown and the Labour opposition’s weaknesses in holding the government to account for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis.