One in twenty of our residents has died, care home chief warns

Jeremy Richardson, who runs one of the UK’s biggest care home chains, is at the heart of the Covid-19 crisis.

As chief executive of Four Seasons Health Care, he has seen more than one in 20 of the elderly residents in his homes die in the pandemic.

Already under heavy financial pressure, the virus has plunged the sector deeper into difficulty, and he says that many small care home groups are at risk of going bust without Government intervention.

Already under heavy financial pressure, Covid-19 has plunged the care home sector deeper into difficulty

Already under heavy financial pressure, Covid-19 has plunged the care home sector deeper into difficulty

The 49-year-old, who previously ran hotel groups and caravan parks, is angry, lashing out at ‘disingenuous’ ministers for their handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Care homes were not prioritised at the start of the pandemic, he says, despite the fact that ministers knew Covid-19 was particularly harmful to the elderly.

Since then, more than 490 of his residents have lost their lives to the disease, which has been rife across Four Seasons’ 187 homes, at its peak affecting residents in more than 60 per cent of the estate.

The group is having to pay more for personal protection equipment (PPE). It spent £2.5million on products between March and April, compared with £200,000 in a ‘normal year’.

The Mail is helping to address this issue along with its partners through the Mail Force Campaign, raising millions of pounds to import PPE for frontline workers.

Richardson says: ‘At the beginning of the pandemic, there was an enormous scrabble for PPE. That drove the price of items up.’

He saw a lot of what he calls ‘extreme entrepreneurial activity’ – a polite term for rip-offs and exorbitant pricing – which he says is ‘deeply frustrating’.

In some cases, Four Seasons was paying up to four times the usual price for basic items of protective equipment, though he felt he had no choice but to buy.

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‘At that point, what I’m not going to do is let my opinion on other people’s moral judgments impact whether I buy or don’t buy. Ultimately I have to make sure my teams are safe,’ he says.

He argues the Government should be stepping in to provide more money to care homes to help pay these costs.

Without this, smaller operators will be at real risk of going bust. A report from healthcare data firm Laing Buisson last month found that care homes in England, even before the added costs of PPE, need to charge between £696 and £849 per week to survive.

But last year, councils in England on average paid only £596 per week for residents under their care. In other words, there’s a hefty shortfall.

Richardson is now calling on the Government to funnel more money to the frontline.

Small operators are particularly vulnerable, Richardson says, as they tend to have less financial firepower.

‘A very large percentage of the care home market remains with single sites or owners of just one or two sites. 

‘It wouldn’t surprise me at all if you saw a number closing because of the pressures that they’re under and the difficulties they’ve had to encounter,’ he adds. ‘It could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.’

Four Seasons is one of the country’s largest care home chains, housing around 8,600 vulnerable residents.

Four Seasons boss Jeremy Richardson claims billions of pounds of extra Government money for social care is not getting through to homes but instead is going to pay council overdrafts

Four Seasons boss Jeremy Richardson claims billions of pounds of extra Government money for social care is not getting through to homes but instead is going to pay council overdrafts

Though it is managing to turn a profit, after bumping its weekly resident fees up to an average of £792 per person in the first three months of this year from £767 a year ago, Richardson says that the industry desperately needs more help.

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He claims billions of pounds of extra Government money for social care is not getting through to homes but instead is going to whittle down council overdrafts.

‘The Government will say that they’ve invested £3.2billion in social care over the last 12-24 months, and they’ve now made a further announcement of £600million. That’s factually correct.

‘The problem is the scale of overdrafts in local authorities’ social care budgets is in excess of £10billion.

‘So that £3.2billion doesn’t plug what is a very large gap. What local authorities are doing is reducing the size of their collective overdrafts.

‘Money which is coming from the Government is not flowing through to care home operators, which is where it needs to get to because we’re the people incurring the additional costs.’

In the longer term, he is calling for a cross- Parliamentary working group to be established to rethink how social care is funded.

But his immediate problems include inadequate testing. Richardson does not know exactly how many residents have contracted the disease.

‘We just weren’t able to test at the beginning of the outbreak.’

More than 490 Four Seasons residents have died of known or suspected coronavirus infection so far, and the disease is still affecting residents in around half its care homes.

Its death rate has been around twice the seasonal average since March, and during the group’s worst week in early March it recorded 217 deaths, which is around three times the same week in a normal year.

Richardson wants increased testing but he says that, in order to be useful, the tests need to be regular to ensure staff do not pick up the virus and pass it on.

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This would mean hugely ramping up capacity. If Four Seasons’ carers were tested weekly, they would use 12,000 tests per week, or almost 10 per cent of the country’s target capacity.

Though Richardson has some hope that the Boris Johnson and his Cabinet are listening to the plight of operators, he believes that was not always the case.

‘I think it’s disingenuous of the Government to say that they were focused on care homes right at the beginning of this crisis and that they threw a ring around care homes from the start. That was plainly not the case,’ he says.

‘I don’t expect anybody, least of all the Government, to get everything right.

‘But the bit I find incredibly depressing is that we move towards finger-pointing and trying to apportion blame before we’re out of the crisis.

‘The Government are blaming the scientific advisers, the scientific advisers are saying it’s the politicians’ fault, the Opposition are pointing the finger at the Government, the Government are trying to defend their record.

‘The reality is we’re still in the midst of the crisis, and the more energy that gets expended on defending things and pretending that you’ve got everything right, the less energy you’ve got for actually addressing the issue in front of you.’

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