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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Labour calls for investigation into rise in deaths of older people

Official figures show 23,400 more deaths of older people than expected in 18 months, with many in poorest parts of country

Labour is calling on the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to mount an urgent investigation into a sustained rise in deaths of older people over the past 18 months.

There have been 600 deaths a month more than expected throughout the last year. The rise began at the end of 2011 and has only this month dropped back to the level that would normally be expected.

Over the past 18 months, there have been 23,400 more deaths than expected, which is a 5% increase.

The extra deaths are mostly of women over the age of 85 and predominantly in the poorest parts of the country, leading to concerns that they could be linked to the government's austerity measures. Public Health England is investigating the reasons for the rise.

Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has written to Hunt to ask for an urgent response to the data, which was compiled month by month by the Office for National Statistics.

Burnham said: "These figures raise major concerns about deteriorating levels of care and support for older people, and demand an urgent response from the government. Labour has been warning for some time about the collapse of social care and the growing number of older people left alone and at risk. We now need to see action from the government.

"This year we revealed a shocking 66% increase in people over 90 going into A&E in blue-light ambulances – a sure sign of something going seriously wrong in the way we care for older people.

"In light of today's revelations I am asking Jeremy Hunt to commission an urgent investigation into the causes of this increase in mortality since 2012.

"The government must be honest about the impact of cuts to local authority budgets that pay for social care, and bring forward urgent improvements in support for older people."

Statisticians have been watching the figures for some time and the data was mentioned in Public Health England's flu report for last winter, which noted that "the number of deaths during 2012-13 was high". The increase was found within the oldest group and was often attributed to respiratory causes.

But the high levels of deaths throughout the year, and even up to last month, suggest cold weather was not the main issue, and flu levels this winter were low.

Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Sheffield University, who has been studying the numbers, said the most important thing was whether the numbers continued to fall.

"The point is that it does fit austerity," he said. "The key is the suddenness of this. If it does drop now and go back to levels that have been normal in recent years, it doesn't look like a cuts thing. But my guess is that the biggest thing will be cuts."

Several factors could be present, he added. One was the possible return to Britain of elderly pensioners who had been living in the warmer climates of Spain or Greece because of the value of the euro.

Another factor could be the reduced staffing and financial pressures in care homes and hospitals, which might threaten physical health but could also have a psychological impact. Most of the excess deaths were of elderly women, who tended to live in care homes because they outlived their husbands.

"This is a big, long-term, story," Dorling said. It would be important to watch where the figures went now, he said. If the extra deaths continued, "we could be looking at a slightly falling life expectancy".

That happened in the OECD only in Japan, because of the tsunami, and in the US in 2008, where life expectancy dropped slightly at the end of George Bush's cuts.

Public Health England said it was looking at the trend. "We are currently undertaking further work to understand why there was a rise in mortality rates during the earlier months of this year and the causes behind this," a spokesperson said.

"The weekly number of deaths are currently within levels expected for this time of year." © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds