The death toll from coronavirus in care homes will be announced daily from Wednesday after figures revealed a sharp rise of more than 4,300 deaths in a fortnight in England and Wales and care operators said they were at the centre of the crisis.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said care deaths would now be tracked in the same way as hospital fatalities “to keep the focus on what is happening in care homes” and allow policy to be changed swiftly if needed.
Until now, data has been published weekly and a week out of date. But Hancock declined to apologise to bereaved families for failing to protect their loved ones, amid widely reported shortages of personal protective equipment and testing in care homes.
Hancock said testing would be expanded to include people with coronavirus symptoms aged over 65 and members of their households, as well as workers who have had to leave home in order to do their jobs, and their households.
“Building on successful pilots, we will be rolling out testing of asymptomatic residents and staff in care homes in England, and to patients and staff in the NHS. This will mean that anyone who is working or living in a care home will be able to get access to a test whether they have symptoms or not,” Hancock said. “The spread of the virus though care homes is absolutely a top priority.”
Data gathered by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the care homes regulator, published for the first time on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics showed that from 10-24 April care homes reported 4,343 deaths from coronavirus. Half of them came in the last five days, indicating an accelerating death toll.
It marks a sharp rise in the official death toll in care homes, which stood at 1,043 up to 10 April.
There has been growing frustration among care home operators, staff and relatives that the government has underestimated the gravity of the impact of the virus in care.
The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.
The UN agency advises people to:
- Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
- Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
- Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
- Advice about face masks varies. Wearing them while out and about may offer some protection against both spreading and catching the virus via coughs and sneezes, but it is not a cast-iron guarantee of protection
Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. Check with your local authorities for up-to-date information about the situation in your area.
In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.
If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.
In the week to 17 April almost a quarter of recorded deaths from the virus happened in care homes, and local authority social care directors have said the death toll in care and community settings is likely to rise higher than that in NHS hospitals. The latter toll reached 21,678 on Tuesday.
Labour said the latest care home figures showed “the appalling impact Covid-19 is having on people who use social care”.
Liz Kendall, the shadow minister for care and older people, urged Hancock to deliver “whatever resources it takes” for care homes to tackle the pandemic, guaranteeing personal protective equipment (PPE) for care workers and priority testing close to their homes.
She called on Hancock to use spare NHS capacity including the Nightingale hospitals to receive people discharged from hospital with a positive Covid-19 diagnosis rather than sending them into care homes, and also to accept coronavirus patients from care homes that are struggling to cope.
Care home operators said the ONS data appeared to be finally starting to catch up with death rates they had been seeing for several weeks.
Sam Monaghan, the chief executive of MHA, the largest charitable operator of care homes, at which 294 residents have died from confirmed or suspected coronavirus, said the figures were starting to show “what we have known for some weeks now, that care homes are sadly the most affected area of society in terms of deaths from Covid-19”.
The ONS cautioned that the figures, gathered from notifications from providers, may yet be an underestimate because of reporting delays.
Figures gathered by the Guardian from the largest care home chains have shown rises in the number of fatalities from Covid-19 in residential and nursing homes of between 50% and 79% in the last one to two weeks.
Vic Rayner, the chief executive of the National Care Forum, said the figures showed “the very urgent need for a daily tracking of all Covid-19 deaths as a key priority for the government” and called for a “ring of steel” around care homes.
“They need the right PPE equipment, medical monitoring devices, rapid and comprehensive testing, proper funding and intensive research to safeguard the people they care for,” she said.
Up to 17 April there were 22,300 deaths registered in England and Wales where Covid-19 was mentioned on death certificates. The virus accounted for 39% of all deaths, over half of the death toll in London and more than 40% in the north-west and the north-east.
Separately, figures for Scotland show that by 19 April, of the 1,616 deaths from the virus, a third happened in care homes.
The number of deaths in care homes where Covid-19 has been included on the death certificate has risen sharply from two in the week ending 20 March, to 22, 217, 1,043 and 3,093 in the following four weeks to 17 April, according to the ONS.
The CQC figures, which account for a further week but are broadly tracking the ONS figures, suggest the ONS data next week is likely to show well over 5,000 care home deaths in total.
ONS data has to be certified by a doctor, registered and processed, and so is usually published approximately 11 days in arrears.