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Boris Johnson, London, 2017. Photo: Chatham House

Boris Johnson, London, 2017. Photo: Chatham House

The government's attitude to the elderly in care homes is unconscionable, argues Shabbir Lakha

The scale of the deadly impact of the coronavirus outbreak in care homes has started coming to the fore in recent days. The government’s daily death toll figures have so far masked the devastating loss of life outside of hospitals. The ONS latest figures report 6,235 deaths related to the coronavirus up to 3 April and even this is likely to be an underestimate because of the lack of testing. By contrast, the figure reported by the government on 4 April was 4,313.

There are currently around 400,000 people living in care homes. An estimated two-thirds of all care homes have reported coronavirus cases, and the death toll is quickly mounting. A week ago 15 residents at Castletroy Residential Home in Luton, just over a quarter of all residents, died from the virus, and in Burlington Home in Glasgow 13 people died last week.

This isn’t a problem that has suddenly emerged. On 23 March, Oaklands Nursing Home in Hove reported 75% of their residents were displaying symptoms. They begged for protective equipment for staff and for testing kits to no avail.

Having to work without protective equipment and regular testing has put care workers’ lives in jeopardy and undoubtedly catalysed widespread and rapid transmission. The problem is compounded by care workers on zero hours contracts having no choice to work, often in multiple care homes, and by recovered patients being returned to care homes when they could still be contagious.

The Financial Times reported that modelling estimates a quarter of all care home residents could be killed by the virus – that’s 100,000 people. In an even worse case scenario, Belgian, French, Irish and Italian government estimates put care home deaths at half of all coronavirus deaths.

The government’s disregard for elderly and vulnerable people is staggering. Rather than deploy the necessary resources from the onset, the government has dragged its feet, and instead a number of care homes were sent Do Not Resuscitate forms for their residents, and those who do get hospitalised face being scored on whether they deserve critical care or not.

When Boris Johnson told us that we would lose loved ones and Dominic Cummings advocated for herd immunity and reportedly said “if that means some pensioners die, too bad”, this is what it looks like.

Typically, the government has complemented its failures with a PR strategy shifting blame and downplaying the disaster it is causing. The first batch of ONS figures showed around an 80% underreporting by the government, and the latest figures show a continuation in this trend.

By any standard, the crisis is catastrophic. One in five deaths in the UK are now linked to coronavirus, up from 4.8% the previous week, and in London the rate stands at 46.6%. The week up to 3 April saw the highest number of recorded deaths since the ONS began compiling weekly deaths. This is all before accounting for the deadliest week we’ve had yet.

And yet, Rishi Sunak delivering the government briefing said that the evidence shows “our plan is the right plan”, because the Office for Budget Responsibility said the situation would have been worse without the government’s measures. The gall is astounding.

It’s the economy stupid

While thousands are dying, the Tories are thinking primarily about the economy and limiting the damage to it. In its Coronavirus reference scenario report, the OBR says:

“Evidence from past pandemics suggests that the economic impact of the coronavirus will arise much less from people falling ill or dying than from the public health restrictions and social distancing required to limit its spread.”

The OBR scenario estimates a 35% contraction in GDP in the next quarter, and government borrowing to bring national debt to 100% of GDP. It had this comment to offer:

“Before the impact of the coronavirus became clear, the Government was content to run an ongoing deficit that would broadly stabilise the debt-to-GDP ratio over the medium term rather than reduce it – a judgement that it will no doubt re-visit in the wake of the current crisis.”

The clear priorities being set out in the midst of this monumental crisis are for a lifting of the lockdown as soon as possible and for good old fiscal responsibility. Pressure is already increasing within Tory parliamentary ranks for schools to be re-opened in May so that people can start going back to work.

We should be in no doubt about who they expect to pay for the crisis. Austerity wasn’t really over even before the coronavirus outbreak, and it will almost certainly be put on rocket boosters as soon as politically possible.

Unsurprisingly, the over 2 million people now unemployed since the start of the crisis, 7 million people living in food insecurity, and millions having to find a way to survive on £95 a week are not considered economic crises.

There could not be a more telling moment that the system is bankrupt and those that govern us don’t care about us. We cannot return to business as usual, and fighting for an alternative cannot begin ‘after’ the crisis – because for us, the crisis doesn’t end.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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