Routine testing of care home workers for Covid-19 should be given greater priority to limit the spread of the virus amongst the elderly, according to a leading councillor.

Since July, staff working in care homes should have been screened for the virus once a week – with residents also screened once a month.

The tests are designed to identify those staff members or residents who have the virus, but who are symptom-free, in a bid to prevent the spread around care homes.

But Hertfordshire’s executive member for adult care and health Cllr Richard Roberts says some care homes are having to wait up to seven days to get the test results back.

And that, he says, is too long – as it means any staff member who is symptom-free but found to have the virus continues to be at work when they should be self-isolating.

Cllr Roberts points to evidence that much of the spread of Covid-19 within the county’s care homes earlier this year was as a result of staff who had no idea they had the virus.

He says routine testing identifies those staff more quickly – enabling them to self-isolate and reduce spread.

But he says it only works if the results are returned quickly – and he wants the routine tests of care workers to be prioritised by labs.

“The majority of people at risk from Covid are older people with health problems and it’s our duty to try and protect that older population as much as possible,” he said.

“And that means testing staff as much as possible and getting those results as quickly as possible.

“I want care workers’ testing prioritised. And I want the test process to be as fast as possible.”

Cllr Roberts – who has already raised the issue with the Department for Health and Social Care – says it’s increasingly important as the spread of the virus in the general population increases.

Nevertheless, he stresses that care home staff work within strict infection control measures and high clinical standards and have a clear understanding of how to minimise the spread of infection.

The issue was also highlighted at a recent meeting of the county council’s adult care and health cabinet panel, by interim director of adult care services Chris Badger.

“Testing is a mixed picture in terms of the weekly testing of all care home members of staff, really to spot the issue of asymptomatic presentation of Covid, which is a particular challenge,” said Mr Badger.

“Sometimes that’s working really really well – others they are having a delay in getting the test results. That’s improved quite significantly recently – it’s still not where it needs to be. The government has acknowledged that .

“I know Cllr Roberts has been keen that that is addressed and he has written – with our guidance – to the Department of Health and Social Care to make clear his view around the importance of that.

“[. . .] its vital that that testing is as robust as possible – both in terms of the results but also the timeliness of the results – its that which is key to the success.

At the same meeting it was reported that between March and August, it is believed that more than 500 care home residents in Hertfordshire died from Covid, either at home or in hospital.

Any staff member who has Covid-19 symptoms is tested through a different ‘urgent care’ route. And Cllr Roberts stresses that these test results are available much more quickly.