UK elderly battle ageism in the pandemic

At last the UK Government has acknowledged that the care home system is bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, its lowly-paid staff struggling to cope without personal protective equipment for staff and without testing kits for both staff and residents.

Ministers have promised that'every care home resident with symptoms of coronavirus will be tested. But although accurate statistics are essential in order to keep the system from being overwhelmed, at the end of last month death registration rules were relaxed ‘so death certificates could be signed off by doctors who had not had any recent involvement in treating the deceased.’

According to a report in The Telegraph, doctors are now claiming ‘that many patients dying from the virus are not being recorded as such, suggesting the official totals may be “significantly skewed”’, with fears that undiagnosed cases ‘were going “under the radar”’.

Currently, only ‘the first five symptomatic residents’ are tested to confirm whether or not there is an outbreak of the virus. This suggests that the true figure for coronavirus deaths is much higher than 3,475 – the number of death certificates on which it was mentioned in the week ending April 3. In fact, the number of deaths from all causes ‘passed 16,000, about 6,000 more than expected at this time of year and the highest weekly total since records began in 2005’.

Many deaths are not being recorded as coronavirus

While coronavirus deaths in France stand at just over 14,000 against the UK’s 11,329, our figures only include hospital deaths. In addition, care home providers claim that GPs are refusing to enter care homes to diagnose patients. This means that Covid-19 is sometimes ignored on death certificates.

Instead, doctors are attributing deaths to dementia or old age even if the patient had coronavirus symptoms. Indeed, one coroner advised GPs 'to put down pneumonia as a cause, with no requirement to state Covid-19,’ according to The Telegraph.   

Most tellingly, while data from some European countries shows that between 42 and 57 percent of all deaths related to Covid-19 are care home residents, UK data shows that ‘only 217 deaths were registered in care homes, with 33 in hospices, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the total’.

Telegraph science editor Sarah Knapton says that by March 26 it was clear that something was amiss. Care home cases were occurring at more than 100 a day with 578 deaths. This prompted the National Care Forum, which represents the private sector care home system, to complain to Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock about a serious lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). Care homes have struggled to receive the same help as hospitals, as they do not feature in government pandemic planning and are not automatically entitled to emergency supplies. The majority are privately run and are thus forgotten in public sector handouts.

Knapton concludes: ‘It seems that if the true measure of society is in how it treats its most vulnerable, Britain, sadly, is being found wanting’.

She is echoed by Telegraph columnist Jill Kirby, who comments that ‘it has long been clear that the virus is more likely to be fatal to the elderly and to those with underlying health conditions, yet those most in need of shielding have not been afforded the protection they needed’. She notes that after a 2016 national drill, called Exercise Cygnus, the government, the NHS and local authorities knew that the country needed to prepare for the possibility that a severe strain of influenza from an Asian country would have devastating effects. But, she says, ‘our national and quasi-religious obsession with the health service has pushed care homes out of the picture’.

As The Telegraph points out in an editorial, astonishingly, in addition to GPs not visiting care homes, they ‘are required to take in new residents released by hospitals without testing whether they have the virus, thereby risking contamination for all’.

Scandalously, care home residents are being pressured into signing ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ declarations. This appalling state of affairs has been blamed on age discrimination. True, the coronavirus discriminates against the old – although even the very old have survived it -- but it is a virus and cannot help its nature.

It is in the nature of human beings to discriminate – to make choices between different sorts of behaviour – and this is what has contributed to our survival. To discriminate because it is more convenient or because we simply do not care goes against what C. S. Lewis called the law of human nature – our innate sense of morality.

Our health services are supposed to serve everyone, especially the most needy. But along with the mentally impaired the aged have never been well served by it.

The mystery of old age neglect in the health services is no mystery. Geriatrics has never been the most prestigious of the specialties. The natural desire of doctors to cure people collides with the intractable problem of older patients. Even if doctors succeed in curing them, they will still be old -- in fact, they will be even older.

Medicine has not yet found a cure for ageing, although the ‘right to die’ campaign would dragoon them into delivering their own surefire ‘cure’ – death. Let us not boost their campaign by creating a new cause of cause of death – death by coronavirus -- or plain old death by neglect.


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