People have died at home alone of Covid-19 during the pandemic and not been found for up to two weeks, doctors who have investigated such deaths have said.
They have only been discovered after a relative, friend or neighbour raised the alarm and have in many cases gone undetected for so long that their body has started to decompose.
Campaigners for the elderly said the phenomenon highlighted the vulnerability of isolated older people living on their own with little family support and the risks being run by the large numbers of patients who have avoided hospitals and GP surgeries in recent months through fear of coronavirus.
“People have lain undiscovered during the pandemic for seven to 14 days,” said Dr Mike Osborn, a senior pathologist in London and the chair of the death investigation committee at the Royal College of Pathologists.
“I’ve seen plenty of such cases like this, where bodies are decomposed, in the Covid outbreak and also done postmortems in ‘query Covid’ cases [where the disease was suspected].”
The decomposition makes identifying the exact cause of death difficult, Osborne stressed. However, despite this, he was able to establish that some such deaths were as a result of Covid-19.
Doctors believe that several dozen such cases occurred in London during March, April and May.
During the pandemic doctors have certified the deaths of 700 people who lived at home in London, with or without relatives. Medics involved in ascertaining the cause of these deaths say that in many cases they have either confirmed coronavirus as the cause or judged that, combined with underlying poor health, it was likely to have contributed or resulted in the person’s death.
“We always feared that a number of older people would be found dead alone at home, either victims of the virus or of something else, and it is extremely sad to find that this is indeed the case,” said Caroline Abrahams, the charity director of Age UK.
“It also underlines why it’s such a cause for concern that the NHS has seen a significant drop in the numbers seeking help for serious conditions, even heart attacks and strokes.”
It is not known how many people have died alone at home and not been found. However, all such cases have been referred to the local coroner, and inquests will happen in the months ahead.
Doctors say that while most of such cases involved older people living alone, in others the person who died had mental health problems, such as schizophrenia or depression, or had severe learning disabilities. Some are also thought to have used drugs, alcohol or both.
Another pathologist in London who has looked into a number of deaths which have gone undetected said: “I know of what we call ‘decomps’ involving people being found dead at home after not being heard from for a couple of weeks. The ones I know about have all been older people – over-60s – who lived alone. They didn’t live with loved ones and seemingly didn’t have many relatives close by.
“A few have been described by neighbours as ‘reclusive’ or ‘private’, things like that. Often they were discovered by a neighbour or acquaintance who hasn’t heard from them for a while popping round, seeing no signs of life and phoning the ambulance or the police or both, who then make entry and find the deceased.”
Some of these deaths were discovered after the person’s family doctor, after being unable to contact them, asked the police to make a welfare check on them by calling round.
The head of the Royal College of GPs linked such deaths to the lockdown that has been in force across the UK since 23 March, which has banned mingling between members of different households in people’s homes, and people not seeking NHS care when they needed it.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is also creating an epidemic of loneliness, not just for older people, and sadly there are some people who will fall through the net”, said Prof Martin Marshall.
“GPs are working hard to check on their patients who are shielding and the NHS volunteers have been doing a good job of looking after vulnerable people in their communities. But we are noticing an increase in people dying in the community, often at home and often due to conditions unrelated to Covid-19, such as cardiac arrest.
“If people are choosing not to seek medical attention for non-Covid illnesses for fear of catching the virus, or because they are worried about being a burden on the NHS, then it is incredibly concerning,” he added.
Marshall urged people to keep an eye on the movements and welfare of vulnerable neighbours who are living alone. “Wherever possible, we would ask people to check on their neighbours – with appropriate social distancing measures in place – and alert the authorities if they have any concerns. Charities such as Age UK also have excellent tips on how communities can help each other during this difficult time.“
One of the 30 doctors who certified the deaths of about 700 people who died at home alone in London during the pandemic said: “Colleagues have had cases of people not being found for five or even seven days. Sometimes they were only discovered by someone noticing a smell.”