The government has agreed to provide insurance to care homes in England that take Covid-19 patients in a move aimed at relieving pressure on NHS hospitals.

With hospital beds in increasingly short supply, Nadhim Zahawi, minister for vaccine deployment, said the Department of Health and Social Care would provide clinical negligence insurance and employers’ and public liability insurance to so-called designated care homes, which take Covid-19 patients in isolated wings. The cover will last until the middle of March with a review period in February.

The decision comes as the number of deaths in English care homes has started to rise. The Care Quality Commission, the sector regulator, said there had been 1,717 care-home resident deaths with Covid-19 as a factor in the second week of 2021, the highest weekly figure since mid-May last year. Total deaths in care homes accounted for 19 per cent of all deaths in the latest week and 16 per cent of Covid-19 deaths (on death certificates).

According to the government, about half of care-home residents and half of people aged over 80 have received their first vaccination against Covid-19. All staff and residents are expected to have received at least one jab by the end of January.

Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, a trade body, said the industry was “delighted” at the government’s decision to provide insurance, but it would continue to press for cover to be extended to all care homes, which are facing huge increases in premiums owing to the Covid-19 crisis.

“We will continue to campaign to have the difficulties associated with securing insurance cover extended to the rest of the care-home sector who are crippled by sky high premiums and lack of Covid cover,” Professor Green said.

The government U-turn on insurance came after its plan to relieve overcrowded hospitals by identifying hundreds of care homes as “designated settings” that would take and isolate Covid-19 patients fell well short of target because care homes were struggling to secure insurance.

Only 136 care homes signed up to the scheme despite the health department saying in October that it would approve 500 by the end of November.

Mike Padgham, managing director of the Saint Cecilia’s care home group in Scarborough, said the government’s decision was a “good start” but care homes would need the insurance extended beyond March if they were to be encouraged to take patients from hospitals. It should also be backdated for care homes that had already faced claims for Covid-19 deaths, he added.

The sector, most of which is privately owned, was hard hit during the first wave of the Covid-19 crisis, when a government policy to discharge hospital patients infected with Covid-19 into care homes, many of which struggled to access sufficient protective equipment for staff, helped to fuel the spread of the virus.

The Association of British Insurers welcomed the announcement and said it would “work with the government on the detail of this scheme and to assist with ongoing insurance provision wherever possible in these most challenging circumstances”.