Care workers in Hertfordshire are being asked to keep their face masks on during their tea breaks and meetings – amid concerns that symptom-free staff could have ‘unwittingly’ spread Covid-19 around care homes.

Until now care home staff have routinely taken off their face masks, aprons and other items of personal protection equipment (PPE) when not in direct contact with residents.

But now the county council’s director of adult care Iain MacBeath is asking them to wear their PPE in staff rooms and back-office spaces too.

The request comes amid concerns that staff who have had Covid-19 – without showing any symptoms – could have unwittingly spread the virus amongst staff and residents.

And with some care staff working in more than one setting, there are concerns that they could even have spread the virus between care home settings too.

“Rules about social distancing, wearing PPE and maintaining infection control procedures are key,” says Mr MacBeath in a letter to all care workers.

“We are learning that people can unknowingly pass the virus to each other in back-office spaces and staff rooms when PPE is removed, and staff are closer together, so do think about that too.”

In the letter to care workers, Mr MacBeath says their role in controlling the spread of the virus is “paramount”.

And praising their hard work and resilience, he says: “You are the unsung heroes of our communities and have worked in exceptional circumstances to ensure the people you look after are cared for professionally, with dignity and compassion.”

Since the start of the outbreak of Covid-19 in March, more than 500 people in care settings in Hertfordshire have died from the virus.

Mr MacBeath has suggested that ‘most’ of the spread of the virus through the county’s care homes has been by people who were symptom-free.

He has pointed specifically to staff carrying Covid-19 who unwittingly went to work before tests were available.

However, he stresses that they would have acted honourably in coming to work to care for others – having no symptoms and no idea that they had the virus or posed a risk to others.

Now whole care home testing is in place in the county – and 25,000 pieces of PPE are being used in the county’s care home sector every day.

But Mr MacBeath says there are still times – such as in staff meetings or tea breaks – when asymptomatic staff take off their masks and could be spreading the virus to colleagues.

In the letter care workers are also asked to think about the way the contact they have with friends and family outside work could affect those they care for too.

“As the lock-down eases, all of us will come into contact with more friends, family and people when out and about,” says the letter.

“The contact you have with people outside of work could affect the people you care for, if the rules are not followed.

“I know it is a difficult sacrifice to make and I sincerely hope it will not continue for too long.”

Meanwhile, at the latest meeting of the county council’s special cabinet panel (June 3), director of public health Prof Jim McManus suggested that the bulk of spread nationally – not just in care homes – has been through asymptomatic people.

He said the plan in Hertfordshire including the use of PPE,  testing, infection control, enhanced cleaning of care homes and ‘cohorting’ of care home staff – was designed to reduce and disrupt infection.