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Elderly Left ‘In the Lurch’ by U.K. Response to Coronavirus

2020-04-14 12:30:04

(Bloomberg) — The U.K. government is under pressure from the care industry for failing to protect the country’s elderly from the coronavirus and for under-reporting the number of deaths Covid-19 has caused.

Older people, many of whom already have medical conditions, are among the most vulnerable to the virus. The risk is that once one resident in a care home catches the disease, it can spread throughout a facility. So far, though, the government has focused its attention on equipping National Health Service hospitals with critical care beds and protective equipment.

“I say to all those people working in care homes up and down the country — whether it’s the people in them, whether it’s the people looking after them — you have absolutely not been forgotten,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said at a televised briefing from Downing Street on Tuesday.

Care home staff complain they lack the protective equipment they need, leaving the most vulnerable and the people who work with them exposed to the disease, while a shortage of tests has hampered efforts to track and contain the virus.

Sunak said Health Secretary Matt Hancock will give an update on the government’s plans for social care on Wednesday.

“The NHS has kind of left them in the lurch,” former Conservative government minister Ros Altmann told the BBC earlier. “They are left without protective equipment, they can’t find it, or testing even if they request it, it’s not always given to them.”

Lack of Data

Complicating the picture is the lack of data. Because the U.K. government doesn’t keep track of how many people in social care are dying from Covid-19, it almost certain to be under-reporting the overall death toll. When France and Belgium included fatalities in nursing homes for the first time, their counts surged.

U.K. officials say they are seeking the data urgently, but collecting figures from thousands of care homes is a more time-consuming process than aggregating it from a few hundred hospital trusts long accustomed to reporting data to central government daily.

Those in hospices and care homes may not have been tested for coronavirus and may also have other longstanding medical conditions, meaning they may not show up in the coronavirus statistics.

“In these very dispersed systems, we just need to be absolutely clear that the cause of death that is attributed is correct,” Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, said at Tuesday’s briefing.

Discrepancy

Britain’s care regulator said it will allow providers to report whether deaths were from a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 from this week.

There is still a big discrepancy between the proportion of care homes infected by the virus reported by the government and by providers themselves. On Monday, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told a televised press conference that 13.5% of care homes had reported coronavirus cases and 92 care homes had seen outbreaks in the previous 24 hours.

But some of the country’s biggest care providers are seeing much higher number of people infected. HC-One, which operates 328 homes, says that more than two thirds of them have been affected by the virus. The provider has logged 311 deaths from suspected or confirmed cases of the disease.

The number of deaths involving Covid-19 in England may be 15% greater than the number reported by the National Health Service. Figures released by the Office of National Statistics, which includes deaths recorded outside hospitals — in places like care homes and hospices — show 217 people had died in care homes before April 3.

‘National Scandal’

“These figures are nothing short of a national scandal,” Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison labor union, said in a statement in response to the ONS figures. “Elderly and vulnerable residents face a death sentence because staff lack personal protective equipment.”

Prentis said his union’s helpline for protective equipment had received more than 3,500 calls since it had been set up.

“Care staff working in residential homes and out in the community feel like they — and the people they care for — are bottom of the priority list for PPE,” he said.

Financial pressures during the coronavirus have already put hospices at risk of closing, and a lack of protective equipment has put further pressure on staff. For charities such as Sue Ryder, access to personal protective equipment is now critical, according to chief executive Heidi Travis.

“This means that Sue Ryder will soon be unable to protect our doctors and nurses from contracting the virus,” she said. “We will not put our staff at risk and so this will lead to staff shortages at a time when they are needed more than ever before.”

(Updates with Sunak’s comment in fourth paragraph)

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