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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at a daily briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 9.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at a daily briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 9. Li Ye/Xinhua/Getty Images

Three months ago, as the novel coronavirus began to gain a foothold in countries across Europe, officials in the UK said they were still confident that the risk to the British public remained low.

By February 25, the World Health Organization said the virus had already killed thousands in China and was spreading through northern Italy, but at the time there were just 13 confirmed cases — and no deaths — in the UK.

While the government ordered hospitals to prepare for an influx of patients, its advice to some of the country’s most vulnerable people — elderly residents of care or nursing homes — was that they were “very unlikely” to be infected.

That guidance would remain in place over the next two-and-a-half weeks, as the number of coronavirus cases in the UK exploded. By the time the advice was withdrawn on March 13 and replaced with new guidance, there were 594 confirmed cases, and it was too late.

By May 1, of the 33,365 total confirmed deaths in England and Wales, at least 12,526 — or 38% — were care home residents, according to the latest estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

While the UK government has defended its handling of the issue, care home staff and experts placed at least some of the blame for Europe’s highest death toll on the prioritization of hospitals over these facilities. Others have blamed the slow rollout of testing, the government’s alleged pursuit of “herd immunity” (which it denies seeking) and its failure to order a lockdown early enough.

The UK is not alone. Many other nations were slow to respond to the threat at care home facilities, and the consequences have been devastating.

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