From personal care to meal preparation, every day many thousands of vulnerable people depend on receiving care in their own homes.
Often it is provided by domiciliary carers from private companies who make several visits a day, but with personal protective equipment (PPE) stocks stretched, some agencies have been turning to online suppliers.
One care company says it paid £60,000 up front for PPE, but “the stock never came”.
Meanwhile, a health trust said it had seen prices rise in what it calls “blatant profiteering”.
Carers are at obvious risk of catching or spreading Covid-19, so it is vital they wear PPE like aprons, gloves and masks.
Tracy Dykes, who looks after elderly people in their own homes in Nantwich, Cheshire, says for workers like her “going in protecting ourselves is one thing, but we need to protect our clients”.
“It’s their lives we are protecting, so we need to be geared up, prepared to protect them.”
But the agency which employs her has been running low on PPE.
AMG Nursing and Care Services has nine branches across the Midlands, North West England and North Wales and has 1,500 carers on its books. It needs to supply them all with stock including gloves, masks and aprons.
Each carer changes their PPE several times a day to maintain hygiene, so the agency needs regular supplies in high quantities.
AMG has been unable to get PPE from its usual supplier, which itself is out of stock, and the company is also unable to secure enough equipment purely through the NHS supply chain.
As a result, managers say they have had no option but to try and buy PPE online.
PPE portals have sprung up in response to the demand, but not all websites are responsible for the deals which are listed on them.
Rachel Simpson, AMG’s operations director, says it is “like the Wild West”.
“We’re in a situation where we don’t know who we’re dealing with.
“We’ve put in an order for 100,000 masks at £60,000. We had to pay upfront, as we are required to do with all suppliers at the moment, and the stock never came.”
There has also been a boom in spam emails offering PPE.
Nick Hulme, chief executive of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, says he has “been inundated with offers of PPE both from this country and abroad”.
“I probably get between 10 and 15 emails a day offering me all sorts of PPE that I know isn’t available.”
Whether the stock exists or not, much of the PPE being advertised is sold at exorbitant prices.
Mr Hulme says he was “recently approached by a company that we’ve previously used offering coveralls for £16.50”.
“Because we’ve used them before, I was able to look at their previous catalogue, and in January they were charging £2.
“There’s no amount of supply chain issues that could demand that sort of increase and this for me was blatant profiteering.
“It’s completely unacceptable”.
Private care companies are more exposed to the risks of buying PPE in the open marketplace than facilities like hospitals which can source stock through the NHS supply chain.
But across the board there is a concern that when lockdown eventually eases, the demand for face masks will surge, making them even harder to get hold of.
As of 26 April, more than one billion pieces of PPE have been delivered to health and care settings across the UK, according to the government, including 36.3 million items of PPE to designated wholesalers for onward sale to social care providers.
The government has also released £3.6bn in funding to local authorities – which are in charge of providing social care – with instructions that most of this should reach the adult social-care sector.