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Sentenced to death – the lonely thousands in care home lockdowns


LEST we forget. Over the summer, the Covid Inquiry will review evidence of the appalling conditions caused by restrictions imposed on the adult care sector, gathered from various organisations and charities, including Amnesty International and Age UK.

More than 50,000 residents died across the UK, and in March the Inquiry heard: ‘Each number represents the loss of a loved one, often in circumstances where they were not accompanied by family and friends saying goodbye at bedsides, but they died surrounded by PPE and by the imposition of visiting restrictions which prevented or inhibited them dying in the company and presence of those who loved them.’

Care home residents were treated so appallingly by the Conservative government during the pandemic years that Amnesty International issued a critical exposé with the title ‘As if Expendable’. They called for an independent public inquiry to investigate abuses that went unchecked in care homes during 2020, and by 2023, 30 families were suing the government for failing to protect their loved ones.

Loneliness, as the elderly were ‘protected’ from the outside world, proved fatal. Every family member and care home employee interviewed by Amnesty International expressed concern that the prolonged isolation of care home residents from their families and friends had devastating consequences.

The daughter of a care home resident in Dorset said: ‘Isolation is killing people slowly and their lives are not worth living in the meantime.’ A family member of a resident in the north of England said: ‘After not seeing mum for months, I found her terribly weakened, both physically and mentally. We were sitting in the garden several metres apart and she was crying all the time . . . Mum doesn’t have dementia and before covid used to have a lot of visitors, friends who live nearby visited every day. Now she has lost the will to live.’

The daughter of one bedbound resident was told she would be able to visit her mother only ‘when she was dying’. She said: ‘I Skyped her, but she no longer knew my name and asked where I was and why I hadn’t visited. During the calls a young carer sat on her bed holding her hand wearing a face mask but no gloves. She [the carer] then went into other residents’ rooms and then home to her family. It made no sense at all.’

The consequences of the government’s callous directives were tragic. Some older people experienced reduced movement and cognitive functions, loss of appetite, depression, and a general loss of the will and desire to live.

One of the 50-page report’s opening paragraphs said that the government, national agencies and local-level bodies took decisions and adopted policies during the pandemic that directly violated the human rights of older residents of care homes in England, notably their rights to life, health and non-discrimination. UK agencies deliberately ignored a directive from UN Secretary General António Guterres who stressed: ‘Our response to Covid-19 must respect the rights and dignity of older people.’

This resulted in misery, excruciating loneliness and excess deaths; the death toll makes sober reading. Between March 2 and June 12 2020, 18,562 care home residents in England died with covid; 18,168 of those were over 65. This represented nearly 40 per cent of all deaths in England involving the disease. Three-quarters of those deaths, 76 per cent – 13,844 – happened in care homes with nearly all the remainder in hospital. A staggering 28,186 excess deaths were recorded, a 46 per cent increase on the same period in previous years.

Amnesty said: ‘The UK government knew from the outset that Covid-19 presented a disproportionate risk of serious illness and death to older people especially those with underlying health conditions. Risk of death estimates made in early March showed infection fatality rates ranging from 0.01 per cent for people under 20 to 8 per cent for people over 80.8.’

They said that the government and local councils adopted policies which violated the human rights of elderly residents, that those decisions impacted their rights to a private and family life and may have violated their right not to be subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said: ‘A closed culture is a poor culture in a health or care service that increases the risk of harm. This includes abuse and human rights breaches. The development of closed cultures can be deliberate or unintentional – either way it can cause unacceptable harm to a person and their loved ones.’

Far from putting a ‘protective ring’ around care homes, decisions including mass discharges from hospitals increased their vulnerability, as did inadequate provision of PPE and the callous DNAR (Do Not Attempt Resuscitation) orders. Visits from family and friends were banned so relatives were unable to check that their beloved partners, parents, and grandparents were being adequately cared for. That was on top of the suspension of regular oversight procedures by bodies like the CQC.

Homes had no access to adequate testing. A care home manager from Hampshire said: ‘We got our first tests on April 13, but just three. We had about eight or ten residents with symptoms but were told we could not get any more tests. They said, “You just test three residents and if any of them are positive you should treat all the others as if they have covid and isolate them”.’

The decision, overseen by health secretary Matt Hancock, to discharge 25,000 patients from hospital into care homes between March 17 and April 15 2020 without being tested for covid increased the risk of severe illness and death to existing residents, making a nonsense of the ‘protective ring’. Amnesty said: ‘With no access to testing, severe shortages of PPE, insufficient staff, and limited guidance, care homes were overwhelmed . . . some 4,300 care home deaths were reported in a single fortnight during this period.’

Several care home managers reported that they had no covid cases until after they received patients discharged from hospital. One owner/manager in Yorkshire said: ‘We had no cases until March 28 when a resident was discharged from hospital with covid.’

While the NHS was promised ‘whatever it needs, whatever it costs’ to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, care homes struggled to find PPE, cope with dramatically increased workloads and diminished staff capacity.

Residents were denied equal access to the NHS as hospitals refused to admit some of them. GPs stopped visiting and were told to conduct remote consultations, even when clinically necessary. Some doctors asked care homes to include DNAR forms in all residents’ files without due process, while some care home staff thought the DNARs meant residents should not be sent to hospital despite the fact hospitals had empty beds.

A care home resident’s daughter in Lancashire told Amnesty: ‘The nurse from the GP surgery rang me to say they decided mum is DNAR. I asked why and they said they did it across the home.’ A Hampshire care home manager said: ‘There wasn’t much option to send people to hospital. We managed to send one patient. She tested positive for covid in hospital, was treated and came back. She is now 92 and in great shape.’

Patients were discharged without being tested to make way for non-existent covid patients. One discharge team member from a south of England hospital said: ‘We had 500-600 empty beds and nobody coming into A&E so there really was no need for such rushed discharges.’

Amnesty International concluded that the measures had a devastating effect on our elderly. The report said: ‘Older persons living in care homes were abandoned to die.’

You can read the full report here. 

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Sally Beck
Sally Beck
Sally Beck is a freelance journalist with 30 years of experience in writing for national newspapers and magazines. She has reported on vaccines since the controversy began with the MMR in 1998.

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