In Depth

Is ‘staying home’ to ‘protect the NHS’ driving a spike in avoidable deaths?

More than 10,000 people have unexpectedly died in their own home since mid-June

The “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” campaign was launched amid much fanfare back in March as part of the government’s push to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

The slogan was “emblazoned on government lecterns, repeated again and again by government ministers in interview after interview, on bus shelters, pop-up ads on the internet, wherever you looked” during the early months of the pandemic, says the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

But with recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) data revealing a sharp rise in deaths occurring in peoples’ homes since mid-June, some experts are pointing the finger of blame at the “stay at home” guidance.

What are the numbers?

Excess deaths are a count of “those deaths which are over and above a ‘normal’ year, based on the average number of deaths that occurred in the past five years”, says The Guardian.

And while the total number of excess deaths in the UK has been lower than usual in the past three months, “deaths in private homes buck the trend, with an average of 824 excess deaths per week in people’s homes in the 13 weeks to mid-September”, the newspaper reports.

That adds up to more than 10,000 deaths in private homes since June, “long after the peak in Covid deaths, prompting fears that people may still be avoiding health services and delaying sending their loved ones to care homes”.

According to The Telegraph, the number of excess deaths that occurred in private homes in the month up to 21 August was “more than twice the total number of Covid-19 deaths in any setting, including including hospitals and care homes”.

The total tally of at-home excess deaths since the pandemic began now stands at more than 30,000.

Has there been any let-up?

In July, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) welcomed the “reassuring news” that excess death rates were falling as the country moved beyond the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.

Earlier this month, the ONS reported that 9,032 excess deaths had been registered in England and Wales for the week ending 28 August - 791 more than the five-year average, but 599 fewer than the previous week.

But Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the BHF, said that “it is particularly concerning that we are still seeing excess deaths related to heart and circulatory disease in younger people under the age of 65”.

She added: “These rather shocking excess death statistics show that the steps taken during the emergency period, though understandable in a crisis situation, are clearly not, as some have argued, any sensible basis for a ‘new normal’ or a new relationship between patients and the NHS.”

How could lockdown have triggered a health timebomb?

The New Statesman warned in July that the NHS was facing “a post-coronavirus crisis in undiagnosed disease and increased waiting times for diagnostic tests and treatment”.

Disruptions to “routine NHS services has caused waiting lists to grow”, said the magazine, which reported that “nearly 2.5 million fewer diagnostic tests have been carried out than usual during the pandemic as capacity was reduced”.

A&E attendances at hospitals in England “continue to be below levels a year ago”, adds ITV News, with NHS England saying the fall was “likely to be a result of the Covid-19 response”.

And with no end in sight to the pandemic, people are likely to continue staying away from hospitals.

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