AMNESTY International is calling for a full independent inquiry into the huge death toll in UK care homes during the early months of the Covid-crisis.

The global human rights organisation is specifically calling into question the decision to transfer patients from hospitals to take up spare places in care homes, to make more beds available within beleaguered NHS hospitals.

In a lengthy report into the issue, titled As If Expendable, Amnesty UK highlights the practice in County Durham, where it claims to have seen documentary evidence that the county council made funding available for coronavirus-related costs conditional on care homes accepting patients discharged from hospital untested or even Covid-19 positive.

The report pointed to the NHS England announcement, on March 17, the decision to urgently discharge patients, including those who were infected or who may have been infected with Covid-19, from hospitals into care homes and the community.

Amnesty states: “This was among the most crucial decisions that adversely affected care homes across the country.”

It said according to the National Audit Office, this policy led to 25,000 people being sent untested from hospitals into care homes between March 17 and April 25, “putting at risk the health and indeed the lives” of care home residents.

“The DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) did not collect data on the extent to which care homes successfully isolated residents with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 and did not require local authorities to collect data either.

“Several care home managers told Amnesty International that they had no Covid-19 cases in their care home until after they received patients discharged from hospitals.”

Amnesty said in the three months, between March 2 and June 12, 18,562 people living in care homes died with Covid-19.

During the same period 28,186 “excess deaths” were recorded in care homes in England, a 46-per cent increase with the same period in previous years.

“These excess deaths are believed to have probably included undiagnosed Covid-19 deaths and underscore the broader impact of the pandemic on older people in care homes.”

Referring to County Durham, the report stated: “ONS (Office for National Statistics) data shows that there were 401 deaths of care home residents involving Covid-19 in County Durham between March 6 and June 12, 2020

“According to council data, just under 70 older residents had died from Covid-19 in the county’s three worst-hit care homes by July 29.”

These included 27 at Sandringham Care Home, in Bishop Auckland, 23 at Melbury Court, in Durham, and 18 at Stanley Park, in Stanley.

The report said the council’s corporate director of adult and health services, Jane Robinson, told both County Durham’s Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Management Board meeting, on June 19, and subsequent media reports that the council “followed national guidelines” on the issue.

The report said the council wrote to care home providers, on April 24, stating it was amending conditions relating to additional funding and confirmed providers would not be required to accept new referrals either from hospital or community discharge, including people with a diagnosis or who were recovering from Covid-19, to receive a 10-per cent uplift in funding.

Amnesty said neither the names of the care homes which signed the original contract or the number of Covid-related deaths in those homes before the April 24 change in policy have been provided by the council.

It also said its letter, of August 25, to Ms Robinson seeking, “information and clarification” about the case, has yielded no response.

In reply to the report, Ms Robinson, corporate director for adult and health services for Durham County Council, said: “Like most councils, we have followed national policy and guidance since the pandemic began and we continue to do so. This has included guidance from government as well as other national organisations in the sector to ensure we best protect and support care homes and their residents at all times.”

As If Expendable was published on Amnesty UK’s website yesterday.