In July last year an old friend who now lives in Brighton mentioned that he and his mother, Margaret, were visiting Harlow for the first time in many years. He and I had grown up in the Essex town and he asked if I wanted to return with my mother so that we could all meet for dinner. It was a nostalgic and poignant homecoming for Margaret, who would sadly die only a few months later.
One of the places she visited during that trip last summer was Tye Green Lodge care home in the old village of Tye Green, which long pre-existed the new town. There, Margaret reconnected with three former close neighbours: one was now blind and two had dementia. She told us over dinner that night about the visit, and it was moving to find out what had become of people I used to know and in whose gardens I played sometimes during the summer holidays.
In his original masterplan for Harlow, Frederick Gibberd, the chief architect-planner, was careful to preserve the long-established villages and hamlets that were subsumed into the west Essex new town (the original settlement of Harlow features in the Domesday Book). Even today, though much has changed from when I lived in the town for the first 18 years of my life, Tye Green just about retains something of the character of a village. And whenever by chance I hear mention of it, I can still picture the old houses with big gardens that we used to think were haunted and the working farm where my parents bought eggs and cream.
In March my interest was piqued when, on the BBC regional news, it was reported that Tye Green Lodge, which has 61 beds and is owned and operated by Quantum Care, a self-described “not-for-profit care provider”, had been quarantined after an outbreak of coronavirus. This was before Boris Johnson belatedly locked down the country on the evening of 23 March and before the crisis in care homes had become such a matter of urgent national concern. I made a note to follow what was happening at the lodge, which is built on former scrubland – once known locally as the Orchard – where as children we used to hang out and climb trees.
From late March, over a four-week period, 17 residents of Tye Green Lodge and one member of staff died. Seven died in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19; the others are believed to have died with or from the disease but were never tested. The tragedy of Tye Green Lodge is a parable of what was happening in many of our care homes in the early weeks of the pandemic.
As the government equivocated and floundered, and pursued a policy of what amounted to benign neglect, patients were discharged from hospitals to care homes – as Dr Phil Whitaker reported in these pages – with often lethal consequences. There was no testing in these homes and many staff did not even have adequate personal protective equipment as some of them moved from home to home as itinerant freelance workers.
Could the deaths at Tye Green Lodge – and many other care homes – have been reduced or perhaps even avoided altogether? It’s hard to know from the outside exactly what was going on in the home in March, but the catastrophic outbreak there does seem to have been exacerbated by a failure to test and trace, and by the government’s woeful mixed messaging.
Quantum Care restricted all non-essential visitors to the home on 17 March, and two days later it wrote to all local Conservative MPs – there are no Labour MPs in Essex or Hertfordshire – appealing for staff and residents to be urgently tested. The first lodge resident to test positive for Covid-19 did so in hospital on 25 March, by which time it was already too late. Worse still, no testing was offered at the care home until 25 April, when Public Health England said it would test only “symptomatic residents”. Since then, all residents at Tye Green Lodge have been tested and, a spokesperson for Quantum Care told me, the home is now in a state of “recovery”.
Why does this small story matter? It matters because it reveals in microcosm much deeper problems. First, it reiterates how slow the government was to respond to the coronavirus emergency, especially in care homes. Second, it reveals that what happened at Tye Green Lodge (and other homes like it) was not an aberration but part of a pattern of long-term neglect: all UK governments, in recent decades, have evaded responsibility for the crisis in social care, preferring short-term fixes to the difficult choices that are required to grapple with one of the defining challenges of our times.
More than this, with each passing month, we understand more about the effects of the Cameron coalition government’s witless austerity programme on the social fabric of the country. Ideological austerity starved the public realm of investment and, according to the Marmot Review published by the Institute of Health Equity in February, created a “lost decade”. We are living with the consequences, but this time the Conservative government has no one else to blame, unlike when Gordon Brown and Labour were blamed for the post-crash debt crisis of 2008.
The years ahead will test our national resilience and whether we have the stamina to address the interconnected crises exposed and accelerated by the pandemic. As the philosopher Michael Sandel put it in a recent New York Times piece, “We need to ask a basic question that we have evaded over these last decades: what do we owe one another as citizens?” And, one might add: what are we prepared to do about it?
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show