TESTING care home staff for Covid-19 must be a ‘number one priority’ after it was revealed more than 50 Barnsley residents have died of the virus, a local MP has urged.

John Healey, MP for Wentworth and Dearne, has slammed the government’s ‘slow response’ to testing for care home staff and residents and called for greater support for local public health bosses.

According to the latest figures, 164 people have died in the town from Covid-19, with 57 of those in a care home or hospice.

There was a spike in cases through April, with 53 deaths confirmed in a single week at the start of the month.

In a letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, John criticised the government’s response to an increased need for testing as ‘too slow’ and said local authorities were struggling to get to grips with unclear government guidelines - with one local care home reportedly waiting nine days for test results to return.

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He said it was the government’s responsibility to ensure a single local point of access to testing, a 24-hour turnaround for results, and proper traceability for confirmed cases among care home staff and residents.

“From the start of this coronavirus crisis our care homes have had the greatest concentration and the highest number of very vulnerable people, exactly those who did need a ‘protective ring’ around them,” said John.

“Furthermore, unlike the NHS, many care homes were simply not equipped - by national planning, staff expertise or operational protocols - to cope with a killer pandemic infection.

“As the Covid-19 crisis has continued, care staff have at last become rightly recognised as working on the real frontline, just like NHS staff, and tragically some have died, again like NHS staff.

“From the first, care homes should have been the first priority for government support but instead this has been the biggest area of government failure - too slow to stop direct hospital discharges of Covid patients, too slow on PPE supplies and too slow on testing.”

Barnsley Council’s director of Public Health, Julie Burrows, has said investigations are taking place as to why there was a sudden spike in April - with part of this work being to identify those at greatest risk, mainly those in the over-75 category.

Care homes across Barnsley have had 23 people recover from coronavirus, added Ms Burrows.

“While the detailed reasons why some communities have worse rates of infection and death are still being investigated, it’s likely that several factors including underlying health issues and age make it more likely that these people will be more severely affected,” said Ms Burrows.

“We’ll continue to work with our local health partners as they offer to test local frontline staff and with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care on the national testing arrangements.

“So for example, there’s a national plan in place with a structured approach to how we test all residents and staff in care home settings, and it’s our job locally to make sure that we sensibly prioritise which care homes quickly receive the testing in which order, to protect people as much as possible.”