A former care home owner whose husband tragically took his own life because of the unbearable strain of Covid is demanding answers from the Welsh Government on their handling of the crisis.
Louise Hough, who until recently owned Gwastad Hall Care Home in Cefn-y-Bedd, near Wrexham, said her husband Vernon’s suicide might have been prevented if he had been able to do more to help his beloved residents instead of watching them die helplessly.
The 63-year-old grandmother was speaking out after Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW) released new data on Covid deaths for individual care homes in Wales – statistics she described as “grossly inaccurate”.
Mrs Hough, who lost 12 patients to the virus, said the figures masked the reality of situation, watching people they looked on as members of their own family gasping for breath and in severe distress.
And she called for a Wales-only inquiry to examine the depth and breadth of the Government’s shortcomings – including inadequate testing in the early days – so lessons could be learnt.
Care Forum Wales, which represents more than 450 care homes, nursing homes and other health and social care providers, said the publication of the CIW figures underlined the terrible toll suffered by the sector, with every single death a tragedy for loved ones left behind.
The organisation said revisiting the ordeal of the pandemic was difficult for all concerned and said it was vitally important the information was handled with sensitivity and the greatest of respect.
Mr Hough, 61, was found inside his 4×4 vehicle which was parked in the staff car park of the Police Divisional HQ on Davy Way in Llay, at 9.45pm on May 21 last year.
A post-mortem examination found he had died of a single self-inflicted gunshot wound from a shotgun. The firearm, which Mr Hough owned legally, was discovered nearby.
At his inquest, Coroner David Pojur recorded a verdict of suicide and said the pressure of working through the pandemic had “overwhelmed” Mr Hough and “affected his mental health”.
Mrs Hough, who sold the home in January after the loss of her husband, said: “Any deaths in care homes before May 2020 are inaccurate because there was no testing. It’s data for the sake of data which has happened throughout the whole pandemic.
“Wales has to be held accountable for this, especially for the lack of testing. We were literally screaming at people to get staff tested from day one.
“I was calling for whole home testing in Wales when First Minister Mark Drakeford was still saying people had to be symptomatic before they were tested – that cost the lives of a lot of people in care homes.
“My staff were driving as far as Manchester Airport to be tested in England because nothing was available here and our staff trained online to ‘verify’ a patient’s death.
“The public need to know how badly care homes were treated. We were losing patients we’d known for a long time and who were not that old. Their own families couldn’t come in and sit with them. They were saying goodbye to their mothers and fathers on a mobile phone or iPad. You just can’t imagine it.
“These patients were gasping for breath. The truth is we found ourselves in a pandemic with a virus that primarily affects people’s breathing and nursing homes didn’t have any oxygen – and we still haven’t. If only we had oxygen to relieve them from gasping it would’ve made a difference.
“I also want to put on record how well my staff worked. They were understandably very frightened not knowing what we were nursing or possibly taking home, and after the death of Vernon they too were in shock and grieving but they still came to work in those shocking conditions of not being properly tested.
“My life is never going to be the same again. My four children have lost their dad. It’s had a lasting impact on my family and it has on many families. Vernon I am sure is not the only one who felt lost in all of this.”
Before the pandemic, the 40-bed Gwastad Hall had always been a happy care home and Mr Hough had never suffered any problems with his mental health.
But she said the strain of watching the residents’ suffering during the pandemic and being powerless to intervene had taken its toll on her husband.
On top of the absence of oxygen, the home was dealing with a chronic shortage of PPE and had enlisted the help of the whole village to make isolation gowns out of duvets and homemade visors.
Mrs Hough, who has three grandchildren aged between five and one, said doctors would not visit the home in the early stage of the crisis and her staff had to train themselves online to be able to certify deaths.
During the initial onslaught of the pandemic in March 2020, Care Forum Wales called for all these issues to be addressed as a matter of urgency, and expressed concern that, in the first few months, resources were being concentrated on the NHS rather than shared with the social care sector.
The organisation fought to highlight the huge strain on care home staff and was instrumental in securing owners a financial lifeline from the Welsh Government to keep them afloat in the face of spiralling costs.
“On one occasion, I asked Vernon to come and help fix a window catch that had broken in a patient’s room. When he came in, the patient begged Vernon, ‘please help me’. I could see by the look on his face he couldn’t deal with this,” said Mrs Hough.
“He started to lose weight but we were all under stress and working 16 hour days because quite a few staff were not coming in.
“The residents were very fond of Vernon and he was very fond of the patients. He saw them every single day and brought them their papers – they were our second family.
“The night before his death, on the Wednesday, we sat outside before we went to bed. It was a lovely evening and I said to Vernon that we would go away at the end of June. I said he needed to step back and stay away for a week or so because he had the TV on 24-7 watching the news.
“He went to bed and I was doing some paper work when he came back downstairs and came into the front room. He said to me ‘but what about this virus?’ I said we would still go away and wear PPE as we did in the home. That was the last thing I ever said to him.
“The next morning, he got up and had a shower and fed the patients their breakfast. I thought he had gone to the cash and carry. That was his routine. But at 10.30am the police came here. My world caved in. I never even said good morning to him.”
Mary Wimbury, the chief executive of Care Forum Wales, said: “Our deepest sympathies go to Mrs Hough and all the families and friends of all those lost in such terrible, distressing circumstances.
“Many lives have been cut short and these figures remind us of the dreadful, indiscriminate nature of this virus.
“It is important to emphasise, the number of death notifications involving Covid-19 is in no way a reflection on the quality of the care provided by homes concerned. Care Inspectorate Wales itself has pointed out a range of factors impacted on the fatalities, including local rates of community transmission, the size and layouts of homes, age, ethnicity and the fragile and vulnerable health of those living in care homes.
“As Care Inspectorate Wales say, once the virus is present in a care home it is incredibly difficult to control.
“We would like to take this opportunity to record our admiration and thanks to the selfless and heroic social care staff who put their own lives on the line to fight this virus and protect the individuals in their care. We will never forget the sacrifice of front line staff who also paid the ultimate price.
“While the safety and wellbeing of our residents will always be paramount, it is also vitally important that we do everything we can to support our fantastic workforce in terms of their mental health which has suffered greatly over the past 18 months. We also have a duty of care to the staff, the managers and the owners who work in social care.”