The Chief Exec of the NHS has defended a decision which saw hospitals offload thousands of potentially Covid-19 infected patients into care homes at the start of the coronavirus crisis.
On 17 March, NHS England and NHS Improvement wrote to trusts telling them to “expand critical care capacity to the maximum” by freeing up beds – meaning many patients were sent to care homes.
Experts now fear that moving these patients, many of whom could have been carrying coronavirus without symptoms, could have seeded the virus in care homes, which struggled more than hospitals to access lifesaving PPE as the crisis continued.
But other studies have suggested that it was the free movement of staff between care homes, rather than patients from hospitals, which was the most significant contributor to the spread of the virus in care homes.
On Friday, the Office for National Statistics said that almost 30,000 more care home residents in England and Wales died during the coronavirus outbreak than during the same period in 2019, with two-thirds directly attributable to Covid-19.
Sir Simon Stevens told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that hospitals acted responsibly with the information they had at the time.
Sir Simon stressed that hospitals would not knowingly have discharged anyone who was infected, that how virus was understood was changing rapidly.
He said: “Hospitals were absolutely right to make sure they had the ability to look after the huge wave of patients that were on their way.
“Hospitals did the right thing.”
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that there was “considerable concern” about the potential impact of the disease in March.
Sir Simon said: “In March we were looking at what was happening in Northern Italy, we were being advised by the epidemiologists and public health experts, and we could see as many as two million people requiring hospital care of whom perhaps a third might require intensive care.
“So yes there was considerable concern.
“If you think about the actions that had to be taken to free up hospital capacity so that in a few short weeks we were able to successfully look after 100,000 coronavirus patients who needed specialist emergency care, that was something that was not inevitable.”
There were just over 66,000 deaths of care home residents in England and Wales between 2 March and 12 June this year, compared to just under 37,000 deaths last year.
While 20,000 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, another 10,000 of the excess deaths were registered to other, non-Covid, causes.
Mr Stevens was clear that the toll that the virus had taken on social care required rethinking how it is supported.
He said: “If any good is to come from this, we must properly resource and reform the way social care works in this country.
“After two decades of talking about it we do not have a fair and adequately resourced social care system.”
Previous analysis from the ONS has suggested that many of those “non-Covid” deaths could have involved undiagnosed coronavirus.
It came as a charity boss told the Sunday Mirror that care homes death toll could have been halved if the Government had rolled out regular testing in them at the start of the pandemic.
Mark Adams, chief executive of Community Integrated Care, believes thousands would have been saved – and has slammed plans for weekly tests in England as “too little, too late”.
And Mr Adams’ claim suggests some 10,000 could still be alive if a robust testing regime had limited outbreaks.
Accusing the Government of abandoned residents, he said: “If the priority had been, ‘Let’s just test everybody that’s coming into contact with vulnerable people’, you probably would have more than halved the number you lost in a care home, and maybe even made it a fraction of what it has been.
“The Government clearly started off thinking, ‘We’re all going to get this, there are going to be about 20,000 people who die’.
“They’re mainly going to be old people who potentially might have died anyway and they might even save the NHS and local authorities money if they pop their clogs early’.”