Coronavirus: Older people being 'airbrushed' out of virus figures

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Many older people are being “airbrushed” out of coronavirus figures in the UK, charities have warned.

The official death toll has been criticised for only covering people who die in hospital – but not those in care homes or in their own houses.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told the BBC the daily figure was based on hospital deaths because “it’s accurate and quick”.

Meanwhile, scientists will begin a review of the UK lockdown later.

The evaluation will be passed to the government – but ministers have said it was unlikely restrictions would change.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, which include every community death linked to Covid-19 in England and Wales, showed a total of 406 such deaths registered up to 3 April had occurred outside of hospitals.

That would have added an extra 11% to the official UK figures, based solely on deaths in hospitals, that were being reported at that time.

Of those extra deaths, 217 took place in care homes, 33 in hospices, 136 in private homes, three in other communal establishments and 17 elsewhere.

Industry leaders from Age UK, Marie Curie, Care England, Independent Age and the Alzheimer’s Society have written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock demanding a care package to support social care through the pandemic.

They have also called for a daily update on deaths in the care system.

It comes after the government confirmed there had been coronavirus outbreaks at more than 2,000 care homes in England – although they did not specify the number of deaths that had occurred.

The figures prompted the charity Age UK to claim coronavirus is “running wild” in care homes for elderly people.

“The current figures are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter,” Caroline Abrahams, the charity’s director, said.

About 410,000 people live in care homes in the UK, living in 11,300 care homes for older people supplied by 5,500 different providers.

Addressing why deaths in care homes are not being included in the government’s data, Ms Coffey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think that the certification by doctors is happening regularly, that is being collated by the ONS and it is being published weekly by the ONS.

“I think that is a fair system of getting that picture, that unfortunate picture, across the country of where deaths are happening due to coronavirus.”

England’s care home regulator, the Care Quality Commission, has said it will begin recording deaths in adult social care from this week – asking care providers to give daily updates on the number of confirmed and suspected cases.

Conservative peer and former work and pensions minister Baroness Ros Altmann has expressed her concern about what is happening in the care sector.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “one or two” people in care homes had told her they felt as though older people are being treated “like lambs to the slaughter”.

“They [care homes] are left without protective equipment, they are left without testing,” she said.

“They haven’t got the staff that they need because staff are either falling ill or there were already staff shortages.”

She added that “the mark of a civilised society” was “how it treats it most vulnerable and oldest citizens”.

Sir David Behan, director of HC-One, Britain’s largest care home operator, said coronavirus was present in two-thirds of the group’s care homes.

He also told Today that Covid-19 deaths represented about one third of all deaths at HC-One’s care homes over the last three weeks.

On Monday, the UK’s chief medical adviser Prof Chris Whitty told the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing that 92 homes in the UK reported outbreaks in one day.

The Department of Health and Social Care later confirmed 2,099 care homes in England have so far had cases of the virus.

Ms Abrahams said care homes were “underprepared” for the outbreak, adding that the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing is leading to the spread of coronavirus across the care home sector.

Kathryn Smith, the Alzheimer’s Society’s chief operating officer, told BBC Radio 5 Live that the charities felt care homes had become “the forgotten front line” in the effort to tackle the virus.

She added that PPE was “just not coming through fast enough and in sufficient quantities for the care homes and all the care staff that need it”.

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Care England has estimated there have been nearly 1,000 deaths from coronavirus in care homes, leaving social care as “the neglected front line”.

The Labour Party has called on the government to publish daily figures of deaths in care homes to highlight the “true scale” of the spread of the virus, which causes the Covid-19 disease.

The issue has regularly been raised by journalists at the daily Downing Street briefing and the government response has been that the number announced each day is based on hospital figures as this can be quickly gathered and analysed – whereas deaths in the wider community take much longer to be collated after death certificates are issued by doctors.

The government says it is following the international standard by quoting the hospital figures each day – and that the fuller ONS figures can lag many days behind.

The latest care homes to confirm residents have died with symptoms of the virus include a home in Drumchapel, Glasgow, a specialist dementia home in Selston, Nottinghamshire, and a home in County Durham where 13 residents have died.

The Department of Health’s official death number of deaths of people in hospital with coronavirus rose to 11,329 on Monday – up by 717 in a day.

Lockdown review

The BBC’s science editor David Shukman said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting later in the day will evaluate various ways coronavirus is unfolding in the UK.

It will look at hospital admissions, the approach to testing, data on intensive care capacity and deaths, the effectiveness of lockdown tactics, and whether or not the public should be advised to wear face masks outdoors.

Meanwhile, the government has defended itself after reports it missed three chances to bulk-buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers treating virus patients.

Health workers in 25 EU countries are set to receive deliveries of kit worth £1.3bn in the coming days, according to the Guardian.

The paper reports the UK missed three opportunities to join the scheme and has not taken part in talks on future purchases.

The Department of Health said it would “consider participating in future EU joint procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time”.

“We will continue to work with European countries and others in order to make sure that we can increase the capacity within the NHS,” they said.

In other developments:

  • Gym and leisure centre bosses say urgent action is needed to safeguard exercise venues, as unscrupulous landlords use a loophole to threaten eviction over non-payment of rent during the coronavirus crisis
  • Co-op chief executive Steve Murrells has said he is donating a fifth of his wages over the next three months to launch a fund for food banks and other community causes during the pandemic
  • Retail giant Next will begin selling online again on Tuesday after pausing operations for two weeks while measures were introduced to keep warehouse staff safe; measures include that workers will wear tabards displaying the message “stay 2m apart”

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