The number of coronavirus deaths among care home residents in England and Wales could be almost double the official figure, according to statistics released on Friday, adding to pressure on the government to boost testing and increase the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the sector.
Between March 2 and May 1 there were almost 46,000 deaths of care home residents, according to data published by the Office for National Statistics. This is twice the almost 23,000 deaths of care home residents registered last year over the same period. However, Covid-19 was cited as the cause of death in only 12,500 cases, suggesting that the real death toll from the virus could be nearly twice as high.
The figures confirm estimates by the Financial Times last month of the hidden death toll in the UK’s care homes.
The number of excess deaths is a more comprehensive measure of the virus death toll as it is not dependent on testing for Covid-19, and it takes into account the indirect impact of the virus, such as inadequate care for other illnesses.
The UK government’s daily coronavirus death toll included only those dying in hospital until April 28, when the tally was widened to include those in care homes and the wider community, resulting in a sudden jump in the number of fatalities.
Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said the figures showed that people in care homes were dying from lack of treatment for other conditions as well as Covid-19.
“Social care was abandoned by GPs and primary care at the start of this pandemic, so many older people were probably not receiving support for other conditions, raising the death rate,” he said.
He warned: “There is an urgent need to make sure that primary care and the NHS supports social care effectively, and if this does not happen people will die.”
In the week ending May 1, 60 per cent of all registered deaths in Scotland involving Covid-19 occurred in care homes, compared with 40 per cent in England and Wales, according to official statistics. However, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, said this week that the difference could be down to how the death toll is counted.
“I am confident that the figures we are publishing in Scotland are accurate” she said, speaking during first minister’s questions on Wednesday. “I’m not sure that’s the case for elsewhere in the UK right now.”
UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of a series of policy failures in the initial weeks of the pandemic that fuelled the high number of deaths in care homes. These include its insistence that institutions accept Covid-19 patients from hospitals, as well as a failure to supply testing and PPE.
The government has recently introduced automatic testing for over-65s in care homes but has acknowledged that more needed to be done to ensure they could access tests more easily.
The ONS found that 89 per cent of care home residents whose deaths officially involved Covid-19 had at least one pre-existing health condition. On average, they had two pre-existing conditions, with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.
Across the wider population, 90 per cent of those who died of coronavirus in England and Wales in March and April had at least one pre-existing condition, according to the ONS.