LONDON – Leading British charities said the new coronavirus is causing “devastation” in the country’s nursing homes, as official statistics showed Tuesday that hundreds more people with COVID-19 have died than were recorded in the U.K. government’s daily tally.
The Office for National Statistics said 5,979 deaths that occurred in England up to April 3 involved COVID-19, 15% more than the 5,186 deaths announced by the National Health Service for the same period.
As of Tuesday, the government reported a total of 12,107 virus-related deaths across the U.K.
The mortality figure, which is updated daily, only includes people infected with the coronavirus who died in hospitals. The higher number, published weekly by the statistics office, includes deaths that took place in nursing homes or any other setting, as well as cases in which the virus was suspected but not tested for.
Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age U.K., said the government’s daily updates “are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter.”
Age U.K. and other charities have written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, calling social care “the neglected front line” in the virus pandemic.
“We are appalled by the devastation which coronavirus is causing in the care system and we have all been inundated with desperate calls from the people we support, so we are demanding a comprehensive care package to support social care through the pandemic,” said the charities, which include Care England and the Alzheimer’s Society.
The Office for National Statistics said that up to April 3, just under 10% of deaths involving COVID-19 occurred outside hospitals. It said there were 217 deaths involving the virus in care homes in the week to April 3, a ten-fold increase from the previous week.
The true toll in nursing homes may not be clear for weeks. France, which has approximately the same population as Britain, has included nursing home deaths in its virus reporting since early this month. Of the country's official tally of 14,000 coronavirus deaths, more than 5,000 were in nursing homes or long-term care facilities for the disabled.
Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, said the U.K. was trying to report nursing home deaths more promptly.
“We would like to have much quicker data, preferably on a daily basis, and that’s what we are working towards," she said at a news conference.
The U.K. government says outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported at one in eight U.K. care homes. But care home operators and staff say that figure likely underestimates the true toll in facilities that house some of the country’s oldest and most vulnerable people, cared for by often overworked and poorly paid staff.
David Behan, chairman of home operator HC-One, said cases of the new coronavirus had been reported in 232 of the firm’s homes — two-thirds of the total. He said 311 residents and one staff member have died with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.
“COVID-19 deaths are representative of about ... just under about a third of all deaths that we’ve had over the past three weeks,” he told the BBC.
Anita Astle, manager of the Wren Hall Care Home in central England, said the toll on her staff was “horrendous.”
“We’re seeing people die prematurely, and that’s really hard to watch,” she told ITV. “We’ve had nine deaths, and (with) each death it’s getting harder to do what we’re doing.
"This is not good death," she said. “People are away from their loved ones. Normally care homes around the country are places that are buzzing with joy and excitement and at the moment they’re empty — visitors, families, aren’t coming in.”
Like many care homes across the country, Astle said hers had struggled to get adequate protective equipment for staff. Many homes also are seeing staff shortages as many workers fall ill or have to self-isolate.
Britain’s Conservative government is facing criticism for many aspects of its response to the pandemic, including the limited amount of testing being done for the virus and delays in getting protective equipment to medics and care workers.
The government insists it is rectifying those mistakes. It has vowed to conduct 100,000 tests a day by the end of April -- a more than five-fold increase on current rates -- and has begun testing health care workers so that those who have been self-isolating but are free of the disease can return to work.
Care-home workers are now also being offered tests, but only 505 have been tested so far, compared to 47,000 health care staff, the government said.
“We are constantly trying to get more support to the social care sector, and we do acknowledge that more needs to be done,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack.
Worldwide, more than 1.9 million infection s have been reported and over 119,000 people have died.
Liz Kendall, social care spokeswoman for the main opposition Labour Party, said the real number of U.K. deaths would “sadly be even worse” than the figures up to April 3 and called on the government to publish the statistics daily.
Ros Altmann, a former government minister who campaigns for older people, said frail elderly people were being overlooked in the pandemic.
“We must not forget that the mark of a civilized society must reflect how it treats its most vulnerable and oldest citizens,” she said.
Meanwhile, the U.K. government’s independent economic watchdog said the economy could shrink by a third between April and June if the country’s lockdown, imposed March 23, lasts for three months.
The Office for Budget Responsibility said 3.4 million people, or 10% of the workforce, could become unemployed, while public sector net borrowing could reach 4% of gross domestic product, the biggest deficit since World War II.
U.K. treasury chief Rishi Sunak acknowledged that “the scale of what we are facing will have serious implications for our economy.”
“These are tough times, and there are more to come,” he said.
Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this story.