Every care home resident showing symptoms of coronavirus will be tested for the disease, ministers have promised after facing accusations that the public has been misled over the scale of the crisis in care homes.
All care home residents and social care staff displaying symptoms will be tested as capacity is built up in laboratories across the country, Matt Hancock, the Heath Secretary, has said.
It comes as GPs revealed that many patients dying from the virus are not being recorded as such, suggesting official totals may be “significantly skewed”.
Ministers were forced to deny that care home residents had been “forgotten” and were also challenged over accusations that they were not included in daily figures in an attempt to make the UK’s statistics look better than those of other nations.
Official data released on Tuesday shows that just 217 deaths were officially recorded from the virus in care homes despite evidence that it is claiming many more lives across the country.
Care home leaders claimed ministers have lost track of the virus in homes because testing has been prioritised for hospital patients and frontline NHS staff.
However, ministers pledged that, as lab capacity increases, the Government will expand testing to include all care home residents and staff who develop symptoms.
“I am determined to ensure that everyone who needs a coronavirus test should be able to have access to one,” Mr Hancock said. “I am deeply conscious that people in residential care are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus.
“We have already begun testing social care workers and will roll this out nationwide over the coming days. And as we continue to ramp up our testing programme, we will test all current care home residents with coronavirus symptoms and all new care home residents who are discharged from hospital into care.”
Currently, the first five symptomatic residents in a care home setting are tested to provide confirmation of whether if there is an outbreak.
The development came as figures showed an unexplained sharp rise in deaths in England and Wales where coronavirus had not been recorded as the cause.
GPs said the rise may be fuelled by patients in care homes who are dying of the disease, but without their cause of death having been proven because of a lack of testing and a relaxation of death registration rules.
Experts called for care home deaths to be included with daily updates for deaths in hospitals amid fears that they are going “under the radar”.
New data from the Office for National Statistics data showed the virus was mentioned on 3,475 death certificates in the week ending April 3.
The total number of deaths was counted at more than 16,000 – around 6,000 more than expected at this time of year and the highest weekly total since records began in 2005.
GPs and care home leaders, however, cast doubt on the figures and said the true total in nursing homes was likely to be far higher.
At Monday’s Downing Street briefing, public health officials were also challenged over why the UK Government has claimed that the country has fewer coronavirus deaths than France.
A slide screened during the briefing showed fatalities in France at just above 14,000, compared to a UK total of 11,329 confirmed hospital deaths. Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said that the chart “doesn’t carry all deaths in this, it looks at the deaths in hospital”.
However, French authorities confirmed on Tuesday that the figures for France do include deaths outside hospitals, including those in care homes. That means the UK is above France’s trajectory, even though the outbreak took hold in Britain at a later stage.
Neither Professor Yvonne Doyle, the medical director of Public Health England, nor Professor Stephen Powis, the national medical director for NHS England, apologised for the error during Monday’s press conference.
“There are so many measures of death that it can be very difficult to understand what exactly you’re looking at,” Prof Doyle said.
Ministers are also facing questions over why nearly half of the extra deaths recorded by the ONS – nearly 2,500 in total – were not officially linked to coronavirus.
Care home providers revealed on Tuesday that GPs had been reluctant to enter homes to diagnose patients, meaning Covid-19 was sometimes left off death certificates. Instead, some doctors are attributing care home deaths to “dementia” or “old age” even when symptoms suggest the person died from coronavirus, senior sources said.
To prevent the system from becoming overwhelmed, the rules around recording deaths were relaxed at the end of last month so that death certificates could be signed off by doctors who had not had any recent involvement in treating the deceased patient. Care home staff have been asked to measure oxygen levels themselves.
Official advice from one coroner, seen by The Telegraph, told GPs to to use pneumonia as a cause of death with no requirement to put down Covid-19.
Dr Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the change in the rules plus a lack of community testing meant doctors often “simply don’t know” why care home residents died.
“I suspect we are underestimating the number of deaths from coronavirus in care homes – and the truth is we may never know the true figure,” he told The Telegraph.
“GPs are now not going into care homes as much as before because they are quite rightly focusing on patients for whom they can do more. That means that, when a care home patient dies, GPs are unsure as to the cause of death unless care home staff can help provide a pretty definitive diagnosis.
“Without proper community testing, the truth is that doctors simply do not know for sure what people in care homes have actually died from, and that means the official figures are most likely inaccurate.”
About 410,000 people live in care homes in the UK, with 11,300 care homes for older people supplied by 5,500 different providers.
Data from some European countries shows that care home residents have accounted for between 42 per cent and 57 per cent of all deaths related to Covid-19.
According to the ONS data, however, only 217 deaths were registered in UK care homes, with 33 in hospices, accounting for less than one per cent of the total.
Professor Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, which represents private care home providers, said “thousands of people” have shown symptoms and thousands have died in England’s care homes.
“We have had situations where doctors won’t come in and certify deaths,” he said. “If the doctor doesn’t certify the death, then how do we know how the person died? If they haven’t been able to see the patient, the safe thing is to put Alzheimer’s or any other morbidity that they know the patient definitely had.
“The ONS figures are certainly under-reported. Clearly, the figures are significantly higher.”
At Monday’s Downing Street press conference, the UK’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said around 13.5 per cent of care homes across the country have registered a Covid-19 outbreak.
But Sir David Behan, the director of HC-One, Britain’s largest care home operator, said coronavirus was present in two-thirds of the group’s homes. He told the BBC that Covid-19 deaths represented about one third of all deaths at HC-One’s care homes over the last three weeks, and that a staff member had died from the disease.