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Some 30,000 excess deaths ‘could be linked to NHS and social care cuts’

Almost 30,000 people may have died unnecessarily last year due to Government cutbacks to health and social care, researchers have claimed.

The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine today, looked at offical data which showed that the number of deaths in 2015 represented the largest increase since the post-war period.

The 30,000 excess deaths included a spike in mortality in January 2015, most of which were among elderly people most heavily reliant on the NHS and social care services.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Oxford and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council looked at four possible reasons for the spike in deaths.

After first ruling out data errors, cold weather and flu as the main causes behind the unexpected statistics, they found ‘clear evidence’ of ‘health system failures’.

These included almost all targets being missed, including ambulance call-out times and A&E waiting times – despite unexceptional A&E attendances compared to the same month in previous years. They also found rising rates of staff absences and unfilled vacancies.

However, the authors admitted in a separate analysis of their results that the study had ‘many limitations’ and was only an ‘exploratory analysis attempting to address a complex phenomenon’.

‘Given these constraints, we cannot reach a firm conclusion about what has happened, but we can at least point to fruitful lines of further inquiry,’ the authors concluded.

The researchers added that there were worrying signs of increased mortality in 2016, and unless there was an urgent intervention it was reasonable to expect the trend to continue.

Professor Danny Dorling, from the University of Oxford, said: ‘It may sound obvious that more elderly people will have died earlier as a result of Government cut backs, but to date the number of deaths has not been estimated and the Government have not admitted responsibility.’

Professor Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the study showed that ‘the impact of cuts resulting from the imposition of austerity on the NHS has been profound’.

He said: ‘With an aging population, the NHS is ever more dependent on a well-functioning social care system. Yet social care has also faced severe cuts, with a 17% decrease in spending for older people since 2009, while the number of people aged 85 years and over has increased by 9%.

‘To maintain current levels of social care would require an extra £1.1 billion, which the Government has refused.’

mortality graph

mortality graph

Source: Hiam et al, JRSM online 17 Feb 2017

In response to findings, the researchers urged the Government to pursue ‘with urgency’ the exact cause behind the rise in death rates.

Professor McKee said: ‘The possibility that the cuts to health and social care are implicated in almost 30,000 excess deaths is one that needs further exploration. Given the relentless nature of the cuts, and potential link to rising mortality, we ask why is the search for a cause not being pursued with more urgency?’

But a Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘This report is a triumph of personal bias over research – for two reasons. Every year there is significant variation in reported excess deaths, and in the year following this study they fell by nearly 20,000, undermining any link between pressure on the NHS and the number of deaths.

‘Moreover, to blame an increase in a single year on ‘cuts’ to the NHS budget is arithmetically impossible given that budget rose by almost £15 billion between 2009-10 and 2014/15.’