28 September 2020

At the start of the nation-wide lockdown in March, local authorities across the country launched a joint effort to house rough sleepers in hotels and closing dormitory-style communal shelters as part of the Government’s Everyone In initiative.

The increased infection control measures in hostels may have prevented 266 deaths linked to Covid-19, says a study by University College London (UCL).

Data from charities and hostels suggests around 4 per cent of homeless people caught coronavirus during the first wave of the virus.

Researchers used computer modelling to retrospectively examine this period, as well as different scenarios that could occur over autumn and winter.

The study focused on 46,565 people experiencing homelessness, of whom 35,817 were living in more than 1,000 hostels, 3,616 people were sleeping rough in 143 night shelters, and 7,132 were sleeping on the streets.

The modelling, published in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal, suggests that there were 24 deaths in this group up to the end of May.

Lead author Dan Lewer, from UCL’s department of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “During the first wave of Covid-19 in England, our modelling suggests that people experiencing homelessness were protected by interventions in the general population, infection control in hostels, and closing of dormitory-style accommodation.”

He continued: “In England, homeless people living in hostels or in emergency hotels have been offered testing when symptomatic, and occasionally mass screening exercises have been undertaken. We are not aware of any outbreaks to date.

“The results of our model suggest that closing of dormitory-style accommodation and increased infection control in single-room accommodation might have contributed to the absence of outbreaks.”

The preventative measures may have avoided 21,092 infections, 266 deaths, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 intensive care (ICU) admissions of homeless people, the research found.

If these measures remain during a second wave, the researchers estimate there could be 1,754 new infections, 31 deaths, 122 hospital admissions, and 35 ICU admissions between June 1 and the end of January.

But if they are lifted, they believe outbreaks in homeless shelters may lead to larger numbers of infections and deaths – even if transmission in the wider community is low.

Even without a second wave, relaxing measures in homeless settings could lead to more than 12,000 new infections, 184 deaths, 733 hospital admissions, and 213 ICU admissions, they warn.

With rising homelessness, experts are calling for Government action to ensure communal night shelters are not forced to reopen over winter.

Senior author Professor Andrew Hayward, from UCL’s department of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “The number of homeless people on the streets is rising again, Covid-19 is increasing and cold weather is coming.

“We urgently need alternative emergency single room accommodation so that communal night-shelters are not forced to reopen.

“The Government response to Covid-19 in the homeless was world-leading but there now needs to be a renewed commitment to protecting the most vulnerable.”

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, warned the virus poses a "huge threat" for rough sleepers in the winter months.

“This study confirms that by protecting people in self-contained emergency accommodation, the government’s Everyone In scheme has saved many lives," said Mr Sparkes.

“We cannot now expect people to return to shared accommodation in shelters, when the winter months are drawing in and coronavirus continues to pose a huge threat. This would reverse the significant progress made in the last few months and could compromise the lives of people most at risk.

“It is critical that the Westminster Government provides funding and makes the emergency legal changes necessary for local authorities to continue to support people in safe and secure accommodation.”

Kelly Tolhurst, Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing, said: “This independent report shows that the decisive action we took at the height of the pandemic protected hundreds of lives by bringing some of the most vulnerable people in our society into safe accommodation.

“Protecting vulnerable rough sleepers this winter is a priority for this Government. Our Next Steps Accommodation Programme provides the funding and support to help prevent people from returning to the streets.”

Source: Evening Standard