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Excess Deaths in Private Homes

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the reasons behind ONS figures showing excess deaths in private homes in England and Wales in the week ending 23 December 2022 were 37.5 per cent higher than the five-year average for the same period.

My Lords, while the detailed assessment is not yet available, it is likely that a combination of factors has contributed to an increase in the number of deaths at home, including high flu prevalence, the ongoing challenge of Covid-19, and health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. On 12 January, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will update its excess deaths report, providing further insight into causes that have contributed to excess deaths.

My Lords, while a patient may choose to die at home, the spike in home deaths rings considerable alarm bells. Analysis suggests that record ambulance and emergency delays could be the explanation for a significant number of many more sudden deaths that are occurring at home. Can the Minister point to any government analysis, whether published or ongoing, to explain this unexpected increase in home deaths and a potential link with these delays? If there is no such analysis, how will the Government know how to overcome this shocking state of affairs?

I thank the noble Baroness. This is an important question, and I had the opportunity to speak to Sir Chris Whitty on this very subject this morning. The statistics show that, over the course of the year, home deaths have increased by about 22%—a lot of that through personal choice, because it was happening over the summer and earlier in the year. Sir Chris told me that a lot of factors are in play at the moment. Flu is a clear example. There were about 1,000 more deaths in the week mentioned than would normally be expected. The cold snap came early, creating more cardiovascular deaths. However, clearly, the challenges are also a component part, which is why we made yesterday’s announcements about the further measures.

My Lords, we are fortunate to have in the Office for National Statistics a source of trusted data to inform our policy deliberations. It provided essential data about excess deaths during the pandemic, and we should equally reflect on what this data says about the health of our nation post-pandemic. There is clearly a range of potential factors that could have led to the excess deaths, as the Minister has outlined, but it is really in the public interest to test all those hypotheses and establish any causality. Can the Minister commit the department to carrying out research, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asked for, into any potential link between the pressures that we know about on the ambulance service and the excess deaths at home?

Again, I spoke further to Sir Chris Whitty exactly on this. He writes an annual report on this. We will be doing so in the same way and looking at all the factors.

Can the Minister tell the House what happened to cancer diagnosis and referral times during the course of 2022, and what the prognosis is for these crucial measures over the coming year? If he does not have the statistics to hand, can he write to me and place a record in the Library?

I will happily provide the detail on that. We all know about the 62-day challenge. That has been the focus of Ministers ensuring that we are bearing down on that number, so that an increasing proportion are treated within that period.

My Lords, some of these numbers plainly reflect the diagnoses and the treatments that did not happen during the pandemic, as my noble friend the Minister has suggested. Given that we now know that the OECD country with the lowest excess death figure during those two years was Sweden, does my noble friend the Minister believe that, knowing what we now know, we would have locked down?

My noble friend makes a challenging point. This will be a subject of the inquiry, on which I look forward to hearing more.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the elements here may be the lack of support to family carers, who are often the element most involved in providing care at the last stages of life, and in particular the lack of willingness to engage with family carers, who are the people who know most about the condition? I have lost count of the number of family carers who have said to me, “They just didn’t want to know my side of this element.”

I thank the noble Baroness. We have spoken before about this in the House. I agree with the general point that family carers, probably more than anyone, have great knowledge to bear, and so absolutely that should be an important component.

My Lords, it is blindingly obvious that lockdown has had a huge impact on the number of excess deaths. Indeed, many people warned of that consequence at the time. I will put it politely: at that time, the Government showed a deep lack of interest in the points being made. We are now talking about excess deaths in the hundreds of thousands, quite apart from the extraordinary impact that it has had on mental health, particularly for young people. Could he please promise that the Government will take every step, and then go a step further, to ensure that the inquiry into this by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett, deals with what we got wrong as well as the many things that we got right, to make sure that we are properly prepared for a future challenge if it should ever arise?

I totally agree with my noble friend. We all know that it was an unprecedented time, and we learned lessons all the way through: we were much more resistant to locking down as time went on, for all the good reasons mentioned by my noble friend. Yes, that absolutely needs to be a key feature of the report.

My Lords, the Minister will agree that a very important point in all of this has been the restrictions now in force on primary healthcare services and domiciliary services. We have left housebound people to their fate for a great deal of this time. Is the Minister willing to look at these matters?

It is a whole-system issue, as I have often mentioned in this House, that takes into account some of the elements of home care, and very much the social care and dom care elements. We know that that is very much a factor in the 13,000 beds that we need to free up through things such as dom care, so yes.

My Lords, excess deaths started to rise in June of last year—at the same time, interestingly, as long waits on trolleys in A&Es started. These have got worse as A&E trolley waits have increased. What did Professor Whitty say about that statistic? If nothing, will there be a review into the waits on trolleys in A&E as a possible cause of excess deaths?

This whole area is all about the number of beds and the occupancy. This analysis was done around the October plan for patients, where we said that we were going to put in 7,000 beds and a £500 million discharge fund. What was clear, as per the announcement yesterday, was that the high level of Covid beds—9,500—and the over 5,000 flu beds were far more than any of us estimated. That increased bed occupancy means that we have had to look to increase supply again and at the number of discharges to social care. That is the root cause of the problem. That is why we acted again yesterday to provide even more care in those places.

My Lords, although my noble friend quite rightly emphasised the particularly concerning figures in a particular week, this is a reflection of a longer-term trend that has taken place. Does he accept that a particular concern is the high number of non-Covid-related deaths during the last summer? Normally, you expect to see a dip during the summer, and it simply did not take place this time. Is he seized with the urgency of dealing with this issue?

I am definitely seized with the urgency. I was able to speak to Sir Chris Whitty about a number of those, including last summer. The heatwave was a factor then: we had over 2,500 excess deaths caused by the heatwave over those couple of weeks. There were multiple factors. You have heard me say, again from Sir Chris Whitty, that cardiovascular disease is a real concern: for those three years that people missed going to their primary care appointments, they did not get their blood pressure checked in the same way, and we did not get the early warning indicators. That is another thing that you will hear me talk further about, so that we can get ahead of the curve, because those are the areas of excess death that we risk in future.

My Lords, have we not forgotten something? When we blame all sorts of factors for these excess deaths, have we forgotten that there are 44 million people in this country suffering from the disease called obesity and all the complications that arise from that? This means that these people are moving inevitably to a premature death from a variety of very unpleasant diseases.

My noble friend makes a good point that prevention is a key part of this agenda, as is the role that we all take in our individual health and well-being. Obesity is included as a key part of this as well. We need a four-pronged approach that tackles the things that we as individuals need to address as well, to make our own lifestyles healthier.