A PROBE has been launched into a York care home’s handling of a major coronavirus outbreak, The Press can reveal.

Up to 52 members of staff at South Park in Acomb - including the manager and two deputies - fell ill with the disease and an unknown number of residents died from it, according to the Care Quality Commission( CQC).

The watchdog said in a letter to York Central MP Rachael Maskell that managers failed to communicate a worsening situation at the home to the CQC or the local authority, and the failure to communicate with the regulator was a potential offence against the Care Homes Regulations.

It said the CQC, Public Health England and City of York Council had been unaware of the number of deaths and high levels of staff sickness prior to May 11,when the commission received concerns from four whistle-blowers and two complaints from the public.

It said the concerns included: management not being open and honest about people dying, not following current Government guidance and staff being forced to return to work before their isolation period was over and while some were still symptomatic.

The letter said the way the home communicated and managed the infection was being jointly investigated by the commission and council.

It said it wasn’t clear how many residents had died from Covid-19. A GP had undertaken an audit of 24 deaths at the home from April 1 to May 14, and concluded several people did not develop typical Covid-19 symptoms of fever and cough, but lost appetite, declined in oral intake and had an accelerated phase of deterioration. “In the absence of testing, it is conjecture as to the part that Covid-19 infection played in their deaths,” it said.

It said that as soon as it had become apparent (in March) that the pandemic was affecting care homes, its inspectors had established contact with all services to offer guidance, and this had happened with the South Park manager on April 2, when 66 people were living there, and the manager advised there was no indication of any infection.

“After April 2, the inspector was not contacted by the manager or anyone working at the service to advise of a possible outbreak of Covid-19 or that the situation had quickly escalated and was affecting multiple staff members and possibly residents,” it said.

York Central MP Rachael Maskell said she had raised concerns with the CQC after a number of ‘whistleblowers’ had contacted her about the home, and she claimed the CQC’s letter to her showed the council’s scrutiny process was not robust enough at the time of the outbreak.

“Why did they not have robust processes in place earlier?” she asked. “I know from discussions, that Public Health have been viewed as more advisory than authoritative.

“The council need places like South Park as they commission services from them. If they run out of commissioned places, they have to purchase additional places, possibly at market rates – so rather than a place here, an additional place elsewhere could cost the council considerably more. I believe risk was a consequence of a commercial protectionist interest rather than public health safety.”

She added it would be a ‘complete miracle’ if Covid wasn’t a factor in many residents’ deaths, especially when staff reported them as showing Covid-19 symptoms and so many staff were known to have Covid-19.

A spokesperson for South Park said it took the CQC allegations very seriously.

“These are incredibly difficult times and our thoughts are with the colleagues, residents, families and friends who have suffered,” they said. “We are proud of our colleagues and their dedication and commitment to caring for our residents and we are providing ongoing support for all our teams.

“South Park has closely followed government advice and is working hard to ensure the safety and welfare of its residents and colleagues.

“Throughout this period, South Park has been in regular contact with the local authorities and Public Health England to keep them updated on developments at the home.

“South Park was staffed correctly at all times and notifications of deaths in the home were sent to the CQC without delay with the correct information as advised by the GP.

“The home has had good stock levels of all PPE equipment and continues to receive regular deliveries with new supplies.”

They said home owners Roseberry had continuously provided health and wellbeing support to colleagues, ensuring they were comfortable at all times, and all staff had received Covid-19 specific awareness training, with special clinical training for all nursing staff.”

Sharon Stoltz, director of public health at City of York Council, said the council and its partners’ support for the city’s care homes had been acknowledged as among the most timely and effective in the country.

“Infection control across the city’s homes has been managed well by early and thorough training, good partnership working and responsive and pro-active testing and, as of 1.30pm today, there is one confirmed case of Covid-19 in York’s care homes,” she said.

“We responded to York Central MP on this matter in mid-May when we confirmed that we made two placements at South Park in early April 2020.

“On May 13, all residents and staff were tested for Covid-19 with negative results for all except for one resident who isolated for seven days in line with Government guidance. The home was visited twice by the Infection Prevention Control Service last month.

“Deaths in care homes are reported to the Care Quality Commission (CQC). Spikes in the number of deaths in care homes are expected and occur.

“Being an end of life, high-dependency care home, no concerns were raised from PHE or the CQC about South Park during this pandemic.

“We continue to work closely with the sector and our longer-term support plans for it can be seen at https://www.york.gov.uk/ShapingCare.”