The National Care Association, which represents small and medium-sized providers, has warned that care homes are struggling to maintain staffing levels during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Coronavirus pushes Britain’s care homes to the brink Private providers say lack of testing and protective equipment leaving staff exposed Sickness has led to a fall in staffing levels at many care homes.

Care providers across the UK are struggling to maintain staffing levels, as a lack of testing and protective equipment for workers threatens to spread coronavirus. Absence levels are already high, with some homes reporting that about one-fifth of their staff are already off sick, according to the National Care Association, a lobby group for small and medium sized care providers. Unions say workers they represent are worried both about spreading the virus to elderly and vulnerable people and compromising adequate care by staying home.

The coronavirus has ravaged elderly patients in care homes in Italy and Spain and there are fears that the UK will be next. Even before the government announced tough new measures on Monday to try and halt the spread of the disease, the vast majority of care homes in the UK were in lockdown and had banned relatives and friends from visiting. But the virus is taking its toll on an industry already under pressure after almost a decade of cuts in local authority fees for residents and facing staff shortages of about 120,000 workers, according to the National Care Association.

Nadra Ahmed, chair of the NCA, said sickness levels were steadily rising to a level that will make running care homes “extremely, extremely difficult”, potentially leaving services “unable to function”. A lack of testing for the virus meant care staff had no option but to stay at home even if they had a minor illness, Ms Ahmed said. “Whether they’ve got a sniffle or they’re poorly we don’t know — they’re out of staff for 14 days,” she said. Although Public Health England said on Wednesday that mass home testing would be available “within days” and the government was prioritising testing for health workers, staff said this was yet to filter through to the frontline. Staff are “frightened and frustrated”, according to public sector union Unison, which warned that a “fragmented, understaffed and underfunded system is struggling to cope”.

Karolina Gerlich, a care worker and executive director of the Care Workers Charity, said that it was “catastrophic” for care workers to take two weeks off work to self-isolate. She described statutory sick pay, which is little more than £94 a week, as “a joke” and said the charity was “desperately” working on an emergency fund to support staff forced to self-isolate. Coronavirus: why the west will be hit harder One care worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said care staff were used to working 80-hour weeks and were fed up of being classed as “low-skilled” by a government now asking them to “go into harm’s way” during the crisis. “We will go above and beyond,” she said, adding that ordinarily most workers would work through illness as they cannot afford to take a day off. “We’re not looked after. Social care is at breaking point anyway — this could be the nail in the coffin.” Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents the country’s larger private providers such as HC-One and Four Seasons, said the industry needed “significantly bigger quantities” of masks, gloves and hand sanitisers than those currently being made available.

But while Matt Hancock, health secretary, has pledged to increase supplies this week, for some it is already too late. In Brighton, one small care home said three of its residents — all over the age of 65 — had symptoms of Covid-19. The home has been unable to source the proper protective equipment, despite pleading for it, according to a report in the Argus newspaper. One issue is that schools, shops and hospitals had not yet accepted that social and care workers are key workers despite government recommendations, according to Care England. “It is clear from the key worker list that they should be treated exactly the same as NHS staff,” said Mr Green. Some healthcare workers have raised concerns in recent days over not being able to arrange online food deliveries or to buy food for residents from supermarkets due to stockpiling.