Coronavirus: Thousands more care home deaths than official figures show, data suggests

National Care Forum urges government to build ‘ring of steel’ around vulnerable citizens

Andy Gregory
Sunday 19 April 2020 16:33
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A senior minister has denied care home residents are being 'airbrushed out' of official coronavirus death tolls

The number of coronavirus fatalities in care homes may be considerably higher than those recorded so far, according to a body representing care providers.

While the official toll sits at 219 as of 3 April, the National Care Forum (NCF) suggests the true number may have reached 4,040 by 13 April, rising to 7,337 when factoring in those transferred to hospital.

The NCF compiled data from 47 of its 115 member organisations, which together provide for 7.4 per cent of the UK’s care home population, and extrapolated this to provide an estimate for the entire UK.

There were at least 2,500 coronavirus fatalities in the final week alone – nearly twice as many than during the whole of the previous month, according to NCF’s projections – which are very similar to those made independently on Saturday by leading industry body, Care England.

Worried experts have called for non-hospital deaths to be included in the daily tally amid fears fatalities in care homes and within the community may be going under the radar.

There have been lags in reported figures for several weeks because the process relies on death certificates, which must be registered and processed, before being published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

But with ONS figures showing thousands more deaths than would typically be expected – a significant proportion of these not attributed to Covid-19 – some experts have warned fatalities may be under-reported in care homes and in the wider community.

Addressing these mounting concerns on Friday, the health secretary Matt Hancock claimed the time lag had been reduced to five days, following a pledge from Public Health England’s medical director Yvonne Doyle that agencies were working towards producing “much more rapid data, preferably on a daily basis”.

But with official data yet to be released for the past 16 days, the estimates from the NCF and Care England have been left to fill in the gaps.

“Quite simply, so long as groups such as residents in care services are omitted from the real-time national reporting on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the government will surely be unable to properly plan for how to protect its people or exit this crisis,” said the NCF’s executive director Vic Rayner.

“The public also deserves to understand how this virus is impacting their communities, so they can continue to play their part in safeguarding the health of our nation and the most vulnerable amongst us.”

Ms Rayner said that “by highlighting the scale of the tragedy, we are giving the government an opportunity to respond with equal effort”.

She urged government to immediately build a “ring of steel” around care homes, by providing them with the right PPE, medical monitoring devices, rapid testing and “proper” funding.​

“This virus is not going away, so this has to be a wake-up call to government and society as a whole to recognise that the ‘whatever it takes’ mantra has to be applied equally to the most vulnerable in social care, as we have to the NHS,” Ms Rayner said.

“We also need to appreciate that these devastating figures would be much higher were it not for the bravery, talent and commitment of the social care workforce.

“Despite the tremendous skill and accountability of their roles, funding for care providers dictates that frontline workers are almost exclusively on, or near, minimum wage salaries. This should be a matter of national shame and we hope that their heroism illustrates how this must be fixed for the future.”

Responding to the figures, a care home owner in Nottinghamshire told the BBC’s Today programme she believed the official toll is “grossly underestimated”.

“I don’t really understand why we haven’t got accurate figures,” said Anita Astle, who said that 11 of the 54 residents in her care home have now died from Covid-19. All care homes have to report their deaths to the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

“We’re now being asked to put by the CQC whether the death is Covid-related – either it’s a positive case or it’s suspected – so there should be accurate data. There’s no reason why there isn’t accurate data.”

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