• Patricia Hewitt said empyting acute beds in preparation for covid-19 surge “came at a high price” for care home residents
  • Former health secretary said hospitals had sped up discharges to social care settings due to instructions from national NHS leaders

The chair of a sustainability and transformation partnership and former health secretary says there was a ‘huge price paid’ by care home residents from the ‘emptying’ of acute beds in March.

Patricia Hewitt, the chair of Norfolk and Waveney STP, said hospitals had sped up discharges to social care settings in March due to instructions from national NHS leaders.

Speaking on a webinar on health and social care today, she said: “Emptying acute beds, which was essential…came at a high price and it was paid by those patients in social care or transferred to social care who already had covid-19 or [subsequently] got it.

“Nobody can remember a time when acute beds were as empty [as currently]…it is quite an extraordinary situation. But it was at a huge price paid, there will be all kinds of questions to come… once we are past the crisis phase.”

When discussing the initial public health messages sent out by the government, Ms Hewitt added: “Where was social care? It was obviously not in that first message.”

She stressed that when decisions to rapidly discharge patients from hospital were being made in March, Italian hospitals were so overwhelmed with covid-19 cases they were refusing intensive care beds to some patients.

She added: “All that reinforced in the minds of people in the centre that we have got to protect the NHS and got to make sure our hospitals are ready and able. That was where all the focus was and social care was just not in the picture”.

Ms Hewitt, a Labour health secretary between 2007 and 2009, said coronavirus had solved a long-standing problem of how to speed up discharge into social care. She said: “We solved it in days, why? Because the instruction from NHS England and NHS Improvement was clear, and it was an instruction.”

Ms Hewitt, health secretary between 2007 and 2009 under Tony Blair’s Labour government, also said there was now an “opportunity” for the country to create a “new settlement” for social care now that it has become “visible to the public”.

She said: “The policy analysis is all there, what we need is political leadership which will build broad public support and cross-party support as we need a settlement that will last and not become a political football.

“A national framework is required but it must be locally delivered within integrated care systems as that it the only way it will work and take account of the different ways of working.”

She said any solution would have to involve “some quite difficult conversations” about what health and care responsibilities citizens should manage themselves.