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Hundreds of UK care home deaths not added to official coronavirus toll

Exclusive: Industry body estimates up to 1,000 people may have died in care homes so far

Workers put on basic face masks and aprons at a care home in Buckinghamshire.

Workers put on basic face masks and aprons at a care home in Buckinghamshire. Photograph: Julie Roche

Hundreds of people are dying in care homes from confirmed or suspected coronavirus without yet being officially counted, the Guardian has learned.

More than 120 residents of the UK’s largest charitable provider of care homes are thought to have died from the virus in the last three weeks, while another network of care homes is reported to have recorded 88 deaths.

Care England, the industry body, estimated that the death toll is likely to be close to 1,000, despited the only available official figure for care home fatalities being dramatically lower. The Office for National Statistics said this week that 20 people died in care home across the whole of England and Wales in the week to 27 March.

The gulf in the figures has prompted warnings that ministers are underestimating the impact of Covid-19 on society’s most frail, and are failing to sufficiently help besieged care homes and workers.

Other homes have reported dozens of deaths as the virus sweeps through vulnerable populations looked after by care workers who say they still lack adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing to curb its spread.

The number of deaths registered by the ONS in care homes is thought to be lower than the true figure.

Care industry leaders and the Alzheimer’s Society say they believe the virus is now active in around half of care settings, which look after about 400,000 people in the UK. This is far higher than the estimate given by Prof Chris Whitty, the UK government’s chief medical officer, who said on Tuesday that just over 9% of care homes had cases of Covid-19.

“We are seeing under-reporting of the number of deaths,” said Prof Martin Green, the chief executive of Care UK, which represents the largest care providers. “Deaths might not be in the thousands yet, but it is coming up to that level. We need a proper analysis of death rates occurring across care homes, and the government should be collecting this data.”

Around 70% of residents in one Yorkshire care home for people with dementia, operated by MHA, the UK’s largest charitable provider of care homes, are suspected of being infected. Thirteen people have died in another of MHA’s Yorkshire homes and 11 have died in a home in Northamptonshire. The provider also believes half of its care homes have cases of infection.

A separate care home in Luton said on Wednesday that 15 people had died during the crisis, including five who tested positive for Covid-19. Three care homes in Scotland announced 30 deaths between them earlier this week and press reports in the last week have catalogued at least 36 other care home deaths.

The suspected death toll at homes run by one charitable provider of care.

Jason Oke, a senior statistician at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences in Oxford, said the current figures were “obviously an underestimate of the severity of the pandemic”.

“The worry is that we discover in six months that the numbers are way larger because no one was counting what was happening in care homes,” he said.

Amid fears that the virus is spreading rapidly through homes, especially among dementia patients who are hard to isolate, care leaders and unions are demanding immediate action to deliver more testing and PPE.

The Alzheimer’s Society said on Thursday it fears hundreds of thousands of people with dementia “are being abandoned in care homes”. The trade union Unison also sent a dossier of hundreds of carers’ complaints about a lack of PPE to ministers, including one report of a carer wearing a bag over their face in the absence of a mask.

The daily death toll published by the Department of Health and Social Care only relates to reported deaths in NHS England hospitals. This climbed to nearly 8,000 on Wednesday.

The ONS started publishing statistics for deaths in care homes in England and Wales this week, but the current figure – 20 deaths in the week to 27 March – are 12 days behind the daily hospital death rate and rely only on registered death certificates, which take an average of five days to process. That brings the time lag to around 17 days, and social care operators say this is too slow to grasp the scale of infection and fatalities.

“By only counting deaths in hospitals, [ministers] are sweeping the deaths of older people in care homes under the carpet,” said Peter Kyle, he MP for Hove, who is calling for the appointment of a cabinet minister dedicated to fighting Covid-19 in care settings. “If social care was a priority that matched other sectors, government would be counting and acting,” he said.

A snapshot of the toll at one particular home in Yorkshire run by MHA.

The ONS said it can only produce statistics from the death certificates registered by the General Register Office and it is “working with partners to better understand how the registration and coronial process is adapting under current conditions”.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England, who lost his 71-year-old brother Umar to Covid-19 on Wednesday, said the UK was “substantially under reporting” coronavirus deaths.

“It appears that some people are not taking this pandemic seriously,” he said. “If they appreciated the hundreds of families and communities who lost loved ones every day then they might. Fifty-two people were killed on 7/7, we know all their names, everything they lost and left behind. We know nothing of more than 20 times that every day who lose their lives to Covid-19.”

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