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Written Statement: Covid-19 asymptomatic testing programme for care homes

As part of a package of measures for managing Covid-19 in care homes in Wales and protecting residents and staff, we introduced a policy of weekly asymptomatic testing of staff on 15 June 2020.  Since then, we have closely monitored the policy by analysing the data and the evolving scientific advice, and we extended the testing programme for four weeks to 10 August and for a further eight weeks to 4 October.

To inform future policy on testing in care homes, since the beginning of October we have carried out a stocktake of the policy with the office of the Chief Medical Officer and Public Health Wales to evaluate what the data is showing us, with input from partners in the care home sector, Local Health Boards, local government and trade unions.  As we move further into the autumn and winter months, it is crucial we continue to have a clear policy for protecting care home residents by testing asymptomatic staff which:

  • Is informed by scientific, medical and public health advice, and aligned with wider testing policy and social care policy.
  • Is part of a coherent approach for infection control in care homes, which all care homes and partners understand and are able to commit to.
  • Provides assurance that we have a clear, evidence-based approach to testing, with appropriate flexibility to ensure decisions made locally in response to changing incidence and transmission of Covid-19 in the community sit within a nationally agreed framework.

We have taken account of the data and the feedback we have received through our engagement with partners in the care home sector, Local Health Boards, local authorities and trade unions.  We recognise the importance of continuing to provide some flexibility regarding the frequency of testing, to respond to the incidence and transmission in the wider local communities.  Accordingly, I have taken the decision to enable statutory partners to determine whether testing should be weekly or fortnightly in care homes in their local areas using their professional judgement informed by the data and local intelligence.

It is important to ensure decisions are informed by local intelligence as well as the data on incidence and transmission in the local area.  There is a need for a clear understanding of the dynamics of local transmission, and local professionals will be well-placed to make informed decisions using their knowledge of where outbreaks are rooted and what they are linked to.  Where community prevalence rates are categorised as high, in line with nationally agreed thresholds, it is expected that asymptomatic staff testing will be undertaken on a weekly basis.  It is crucial that decisions about the frequency of testing are made on a consistent basis and notified to us in advance of decisions being announced, and that they are communicated in a clear and timely way to care homes and representative organisations in the sector.  We will be writing to statutory partners about the governance arrangements we are putting in place.

I want to take the opportunity to confirm that all asymptomatic testing of care home staff will now be undertaken through the UK Organisations Portal and the Lighthouse laboratories.  We temporarily introduced some flexibility into the programme in September, to allow testing through the Public Health Wales laboratories in response to capacity issues with the Lighthouse laboratories, but those issues are being addressed and it is important that the Public Health Wales laboratories are used for other purposes including symptomatic testing and responding to incidents and outbreaks of Covid-19.

We will continue to closely monitor the programme, and the new arrangements for determining whether to test on a weekly or a fortnightly basis, by maintaining close engagement with the care home sector and statutory partners until the end of December.

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