The grim figure has been laid bare in a Care Quality Commission (CQC) publication, showing nearly 7,000 facilities across the country saw at least one coronavirus death between April 10, 2020 to March 31, 2021.
In the first quarter of 2020-21, around the time of the first wave, care homes in the North West reported the highest number of Covid-19 death notifications to the regulator.
This region also had the highest number of deaths involving coronavirus in the wider community, according to figures from Public Health England.
In Lancashire, The Sands in Marine Road East, Morecambe, was the worst hit, recording 20 Covid-related deaths during the given period.
Others badly affected include Meadowbank Care Home in Clayton le Woods which recorded 18 deaths, Newfield Lodge in St Andrew's Road South, St Anne's, which recorded 17 deaths, and in Preston, Preston Private Nursing Home in Fulwood, which recorded 14 deaths.
Not an indicator of quality or safety
The CQC warned the number of death notifications alone should not be treated as a reliable indicator of quality or safety in individual homes. Factors that could influence the number of deaths include rates of local community transmission, care home size and residents’ age and health and care needs.
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director said "this is more a tragic accident of geography than anything else.”
Nationally, almost 40,000 care home residents have died from Covid, with the toll largely blamed on the move to discharge thousands of hospital patients into homes without testing them during the early days of the pandemic, difficulties acquiring PPE, and a lack of testing.
The National Care Association said: "It is important to consider this data against the backdrop of the unprecedented pressures faced by providers whilst the nation was keeping the ‘NHS safe’. Social Care providers were asked to support their health colleagues by taking discharges out of hospitals, PPE access was limited as was testing capacity/access."
The data released by the CQC — which regulates and inspects health and social care services in England — did not include all care homes — care homes with fewer than 10 beds were omitted to protect victims' identities — so the true toll is likely to be higher.
Deaths were recorded as 'involving Covid' and provided by the care homes themselves, so may not reflect a doctor's opinion that residents died because of the virus, the CQC said. Not all residents were tested in the early days of the pandemic.
And not all Covid deaths occurred in the homes themselves, with many taken to hospital for treatment and sometimes catching the virus there. CQC said 25 per cent of all care home resident Covid deaths occurred outside care homes.
What the CQC say:
Kate Terroni, CQC’s Chief Inspector for Adult Social Care, said: "In considering this data it is important to remember that every number represents a life lost - and families, friends and those who cared for them who are having to face the sadness and consequences of their death.
"We are grateful for the time that families who lost their loved ones during the pandemic have spent meeting with us and the personal experiences they have shared. These discussions have helped us shape our thinking around the highly sensitive issue of publishing information on the numbers of death notifications involving COVID-19 received from individual care homes.
"We have a duty to be transparent and to act in the public interest, and we made a commitment to publish data at this level, but only once we felt were able to do so as accurately and safely as possible given the complexity and sensitivity of the data.
"In doing so, we aim to provide a more comprehensive picture of the impact of COVID-19 on care homes, the people living in them and their families. It is important to be clear, however, that although this data relates to deaths of people who were care home residents, many of them did not die in or contract COVID-19 in a care home."
Care England, a membership body for care providers, expressed its “deepest sympathies” to the families of care home residents and staff who died.
Chief executive Professor Martin Green said: “Every death is a tragedy and it would be highly disrespectful if lessons were not learned at every level. Similarly, every death needs to be seen in context.”
The body said it had been speaking to the CQC over the past nine months with a “comprehensive list of queries outlining providers’ concerns”, including about the timing of the data, and seeking assurances that it would be properly contextualised.
Prof Green continued: “We do not believe that this data is a reflection of quality and I would like to pay tribute to all the frontline staff who have done a heroic job and it must not be
forgotten that many of them lost their lives too.”
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, added: “It would be easy to assume that if a care home has experienced a large volume of Covid-19 deaths that must mean it’s not very good, but this would be unfair.
“The care homes that have been impacted the worst are generally in areas where there have been lots of Covid-19 cases in the local community, so this is more a tragic accident of geography than anything else.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman expressed the Government’s sympathies, adding: “Throughout the pandemic we have done all we can to protect vulnerable people in adult social care.
“We have provided billions of pounds to support the sector, including on infection and prevention control measures, free PPE, priority vaccinations and additional testing.”
What do the homes say in full?
A spokesperson for Meadowbank Care Home, which was one of the worst hit homes in Lancashire, said: “Every death is a tragedy for the individual’s family and is also deeply felt by our Colleagues. Residents and their families become part of our extended family over the time they live with us and our thoughts and sympathies are with all families who have lost a loved one from coronavirus.
“The past 17 months have been an exceptionally difficult time for everyone working in and connected to Meadowbank care home.
“Throughout the pandemic we have worked tirelessly to protect our residents and colleagues. This includes taking steps to ensure all of our homes were following the government’s guidance at every stage, focusing on the highest standards of infection control, making sure we were using the recommended PPE, utilising all opportunities to participate in testing and supporting the vaccine rollout.
“Despite these measures, sadly our outbreak took place at a time when community transmission rates were high and before the introduction of the more regular testing programme or vaccine programme, both of which have become the best defences we have. As we move forward, we continue to be exceptionally vigilant, especially as lockdown measures continue to ease.
“We are exceptionally grateful for the ongoing support and understanding of our Residents and their loved ones, and we are very proud of how our team rose to the challenges of working on the front lines of the pandemic over the last 17 months.”
Nick Wood, director of Lakeview Rest Homes Ltd, which runs Newfield Lodge in St Anne's, said: The most important thing to consider is that 17 of our residents lost their lives to this awful virus. It was a terribly difficult time for the families who lost loved ones and the members of staff who worked tirelessly to provide genuine care in the most difficult of circumstances.
"Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) guidelines at the time were that staff should only receive one PCR test once per week, with results taking a minimum of 48 hours to be returned.
"At that time, residents were only required to take a PCR test once per 28 days, again with results taking a minimum of 48 hours. Lateral Flow Devices (LFD’s) we’re not available to the Home at the time of the outbreak. This gap in testing placed care homes and their residents in a very difficult position.
"Further, DHSC guidelines state that an outbreak is classed as two infections in the care setting, so given the above, identifying and containing the infection was incredibly hard.
"Whilst as a matter of course, we follow good hygiene practices and infection prevention measures, once the second infection was identified, outbreak protocols were put in place and followed. However, due to our residents dementia diagnoses it was impossible to isolate our residents in their bedrooms as they generally would lack the capacity to understand why or comprehend what was happening. Therefore, we were forced to adopt a policy of isolating residents by floor.
"During the outbreak multi-agencies were involved in order to support us to ensure our residents were receiving the appropriate care and treatment. No issues were raised by any of those agencies with the care and practices of the Home and it’s carers.
CQC visited Newfield Lodge on March 8, 2021 to carry out a Planned Infection Control Inspection and they were satisfied that The Home followed the correct processes and procedures with regards to infection control.
"It is unfortunate that at the time of this horrendous outbreak the residents at the Home had not yet been vaccinated, that Lateral Flow Devices (LFD’s) were not yet available for use on staff or residents and that testing guidelines were not as stringent as they perhaps should be generally.
"Following on from multiple outbreaks across the country the Department for Health and Social Care has amended their guidance numerous times to reflect lessons learned. Part of this has led to The Enhanced Testing Regime being put in place which involves testing staff twice weekly with LFD’s in addition the weekly PCR test."
A spokesman for Preston Private Nursing Home said: “We are extremely saddened by the deaths caused by Covid 19 among residents in our home, and our thoughts are with those who lost loved ones.
The home followed strict procedures on infection prevention and control at all times, in accordance with government guidance, and continues to do so. Despite all these measures, Covid 19 is a contagious airborne virus, which has tragically swept our nation. Residents in care homes now have the additional protection afforded by the vaccination programme, which dramatically reduces susceptibility to the illness and death.
As an organisation, we are firmly committed to ensuring the safety of our residents, and we have the commitment that everybody who comes into our homes, including visitors, has a personal responsibility to take appropriate steps to help stop the spread of the disease.”
The Sands in Morecambe were unavailable for comment.
Lancashire County Council
Lancashire County Council runs 24 care home facilities, several of which have seen deaths related to Covid.
Louise Taylor, executive director of adult services and health and wellbeing, said: "I would like to offer my sincere condolences to everyone who has lost a family member, partner, friend or loved one because of Covid-19.
"The information published yesterday only further brings home the terrible impact which the pandemic has had upon our communities, and particularly how it has impacted those who are vulnerable to the virus due to their age or underlying health conditions.
"Those working in care homes and across the caring sector have provided great care, often to very sick people under very difficult circumstances, throughout the pandemic.
"I would like to thank them for all their incredible efforts and professionalism in putting the care of residents first, particularly during the early days of the pandemic when relatively little was known about the virus.
"The threat of Covid-19 is still with us, and I'm also very grateful to the families and friends of care home residents for continuing to work with our staff to support the measures which are needed to protect everyone and control the spread of the virus."