Campaigners say report on first wave shows government failed to protect the most vulnerable
Thu 12 Nov 2020 13.56 GMT
Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 18.00 GMT
People with learning disabilities are dying of coronavirus at more than six times the rate of the general population, according to “deeply troubling” figures that have prompted a government review.
A report from Public Health England (PHE) found that 451 per 100,000 people registered as having learning disabilities died after contracting Covid-19 in the first wave of the pandemic, when the figures were adjusted for age and sex.
Because not all Covid deaths among people with learning disabilities are registered as such, the true figure is likely to be 692 per 100,000, or 6.3 times the UK average, the report estimated.
Campaigners said the figures showed the government had failed to protect the most vulnerable.
The report found that Covid deaths among those with learning disabilities were also more widely spread across age groups, with far greater mortality rates among younger adults.
Those aged 18-34 were 30 times more likely to die with the virus than their counterparts in the general population.
The higher death rate is likely to reflect the greater prevalence of health problems such as diabetes and obesity among those with learning disabilities, the report said. It also noted that some learning disabilities, such as Down’s syndrome, can make people more vulnerable to respiratory infections.
People with learning disabilities are also likely to have difficulty recognising symptoms and following advice on testing, social distancing and infection prevention, the report said. It may also be harder for those caring for them to recognise symptoms if these cannot be communicated, it added.
The care minister, Helen Whately, said she had asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to review the findings and advise on further action.
Dan Scorer, the head of policy at the learning disability charity Mencap, said the review “must look closely at why so many people with a learning disability died from Covid-19 and what should have been done differently”.
He said: “The government has failed to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens. Decades of underinvestment in social care has left most people with a learning disability with no support to understand ever-changing guidance on staying safe and accessing testing.
“This, combined with the closure of the NHS for all but the most urgent care, has clearly had a devastating impact on people with a learning disability, and exacerbated already shocking levels of premature death and health inequalities.”
Prof John Newton, PHE’s director of health improvement, said: “It is deeply troubling that one of the most vulnerable groups in our society suffered so much during the first wave of the pandemic. We must do everything possible to prevent this happening again.”
The shadow care minister, Barbara Keeley, called for immediate action to address the problem. In a letter to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, she said: “People with learning disabilities deserve better than this, they deserve action to protect them from increased risk this reports shows they have of catching Covid-19 and dying from it.”
The study examined data from the English Learning Disabilities Mortality Review (LeDeR) and NHS England’s Covid-19 Patient Notification System (CNPS), which records deaths in hospital settings.
LeDeR received 623 reports of deaths among people with learning disabilities that were definitely or possibly related to Covid-19 between the beginning of February and 5 June. This suggests a national total of 956 deaths after accounting for under-reporting.
The virus accounted for 54% of deaths of adults with learning disabilities in residential care in the review period, and 53% of the deaths of those receiving community care.
The number of deaths among white people with learning disabilities from all causes in 2020 was 1.9 times the number in the two previous years, the report said. For Asian or British Asian groups it was 4.5 times and for black or black British groups 4.4 times.
Whately said: “A third of those with learning disabilities who sadly died were living in residential care. There is now regular testing of staff and residents in care homes, and testing has also been rolled out to supported living settings in high risk areas.
“We’re also offering free PPE and the joint committee on vaccines and immunisation has proposed those living and working in care homes should be top of the list for vaccination.”
Newton said: “It is essential to practise rigorous infection control if you are in contact with someone with a learning disability, whether or not they live in a care home.”