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Up to 8,700 patients died after catching Covid-19 while in hospital being treated for another medical problem, according to official NHS data obtained by the Guardian.
The figures, which were provided by the hospitals themselves, were described as “horrifying” by relatives of those who died.
Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, said that hospital-acquired Covid “remains one of the silent scandals of this pandemic, causing many thousands of avoidable deaths”.
NHS leaders and senior doctors have long claimed hospitals have struggled to stop Covid spreading because of shortages of single rooms, a lack of personal protective equipment and an inability to test staff and patients early in the pandemic.
Now, official figures supplied by NHS trusts in England show that 32,307 people have probably or definitely contracted the disease while in hospital since March 2020 – and 8,747 of them died.
That means that almost three in 10 (27.1%) of those infected that way lost their lives within 28 days.
“The NHS has done us all proud over the past year, but these new figures are devastating and pose challenging questions on whether the right hospital infection controls were in place”, said Hunt, who chairs the Commons health and social care select committee.
The Guardian obtained the data under freedom of information laws from 81 of England’s 126 acute hospital trusts.
The responses show that every trust had to grapple with what doctors call nosocomial or hospital-acquired infection. Many hospitals were unable to keep Covid-positive patients separate from those without the disease, which led to its lethal transmission.
According to the FoI responses, University Hospitals Birmingham trust had the highest number of deaths (408), followed by Nottingham University Hospitals (279) and Frimley Health (259). Nine trusts had 200 or more deaths.
However, the numbers of deaths are influenced by factors such as a hospital’s size, number of single rooms and capacity of its intensive care unit, and the make up of its local population and level of infection among them, as well as weaknesses in infection control procedures.
At a handful of trusts, about a third of all people who died after catching Covid had become infected in hospital. They include Royal Cornwall hospitals (36%), Salisbury (35.2%) and Kettering general hospital (31.2%).
The answers provided to the Guardian reveal that the 8,747 who died were all in hospital for another reason, such as treatment for a fall, flare-up of a serious illness, or to have an operation.
The figures include people who died in hospital and after discharge. They do not distinguish between those who died of Covid, with Covid or of another condition potentially exacerbated by the virus, such as a heart attack.
While NHS England has published data on hospital-acquired Covid infections since last August, it has not released any statistics on how many people died as a result.
The figures provide the most detailed and comprehensive insight yet into how widespread a scourge nosocomial Covid has been over the last 15 months and the huge death toll it has exacted.
Forty-five trusts refused to disclose their death figures, despite their legal obligation to do so under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK campaign, many of whose members lost a loved one to nosocomial Covid, said the disease spread in hospitals because they were poorly prepared for the pandemic. It urged ministers to act before a third wave, driven by the highly transmissible India variant that is taking hold across Britain, causes fresh havoc.
“The mortality rate for patients and staff who were infected in hospitals is horrifying and must be stopped from happening again ahead of a potential third wave.
“On issues such as segregating patients on wards, PPE for frontline workers and testing patients who are discharged, there are critical questions around how prepared hospitals were and the resources they were provided,” said Matt Fowler, the group’s co-founder.
NHS trusts are required to monitor how many people caught Covid in their hospitals. If someone tests positive between eight and 14 days into their stay, their Covid is deemed to be “probable” hospital-acquired. Any inpatient’s positive test result 15 days or more after admission is deemed a “definite” case of nosocomial infection.
The trusts with the highest numbers of “probable” and “definite” nosocomial infections were University hospitals Birmingham (1,463), Liverpool University hospitals (1,160) and Manchester University hospitals (1,081). Their size and high levels of Covid in their catchment areas are likely to be key factors.
The trust at which the highest proportion of patients died after catching Covid in hospital was Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh trust in Lancashire. It only provided figures for October 2020 to March 2021. In that time 273 patients became infected while in hospital, of whom 174 died – a mortality rate of 63.7%. The trusts with the next highest percentages by that measure were Gateshead health (55.6%) and Wirral University teaching hospital (53.5%).
Fowler said Boris Johnson should bring forward the public inquiry he has promised from 2022 to this summer so it would produce by the autumn an interim report “that includes best practices on preventing transmission within hospitals”.
“Not doing so puts more lives at risk,” he added.
Dr Claudia Paoloni, president of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, said the death toll was “a human tragedy” from which lessons must be learned.
She lambasted government “foot-dragging”, such as delaying the wearing of face masks in hospitals becoming mandatory and its mishandling of how much mixing people could do over Christmas. Those led infections in the community to “spiral out of control” which, combined with inadequate testing and lack of space in hospitals to segregate patients, boosted nosocomial spread, she said.
“These unforgivable failings overwhelmed some hospitals and tragically patients including NHS staff who could have been alive today are instead lost, leaving behind a legacy of mourning families and devastated lives”, said Paoloni.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of hospitals group NHS Providers, said nosocomial Covid had affected hospitals worldwide and stressed NHS trusts’ determined efforts to keep it in check.
“These figures are distressing and lay bare how difficult the past 15 months have been. Every Covid-19 death has been a tragedy and trust leaders’ first thoughts are with the families of all those who have died from Covid-19, whatever the original source of the infection.
“Trusts have worked incredibly hard to maintain a safe environment but Covid-19 brought unique challenges to every health system in the world. These include significant numbers of patients having Covid-19 without showing symptoms and, early in the pandemic, insufficient access to rapid turnaround testing.”
An NHS spokesperson said hospitals were not to blame.
A spokesperson said: “The Office for National Statistics and other data conclusively demonstrate that the root cause of rising infection rates in hospitals is rising rates in the community and throughout the pandemic weekly reports from Public Health England have consistently shown that outbreaks in hospitals are less common than in other settings.”
Hospitals’ “robust infection control measures” include treating Covid and non-Covid patients in separate areas and testing all inpatients on admission and twice in their first week, the spokesperson added.
Source: The Guardian
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