Medical bodies and homelessness organisations warn of ‘risk to life’ without action to protect people sleeping rough this winter

Eighteen of Britain’s leading health and homelessness organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of General Practitioners, Crisis and St Mungo’s have issued a warning that without urgent Government action to protect people forced to sleep rough this winter, lives will be at risk from the double threat of coronavirus and cold weather. 

The group, which includes leading experts and a member of the Government’s SAGE advisory committee, is calling on the UK Government to ensure everyone who is sleeping rough is given safe, self-contained accommodation as a priority due to the high risk of coronavirus transmission in communal night shelters. They urge that councils are provided with the vital funding needed to protect people from the virus. 

Their call comes as concerns rise that, as the weather turns colder, night shelters will be used to accommodate the increasing numbers of people sleeping rough as councils don’t have the funding for self-contained accommodation such as hotels, as was seen at the start of the pandemic.

The group warns that social distancing and proper safety measures for communal and dormitory-style shelters are likely to be all but impossible and should not be the answer ahead of the winter months. The group draws on international examples of communal shelters staying open during the pandemic which have shown the risk to life of this approach. 

In March, the Government moved over 15,000 people who were sleeping rough into emergency, self-contained accommodation including hotels. According to a study in The Lancet this response meant an estimated 266 deaths were avoided during the first wave of the pandemic among England’s homeless population, as well as 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 admissions to Intensive Care Units1. The researchers predict that failure to maintain such measures could lead to further spread of the virus and more deaths among people who are homeless. 

Previous studies have shown that people who are homeless are three times more likely to experience a chronic health need, including respiratory conditions. Warning that the economic consequences of the pandemic “will see more and more people pushed into homelessness,” the group warns that lives will be at risk if the Government does not act now to provide the funding and accommodation needed to protect people.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “Without Government action, the reality of what could happen this winter is terrifying. Predictions of deaths among people who have nowhere else to go, other than our streets, or sleeping in communal night shelters that are not COVID-secure, must act as a wake-up call to Government. 

 “We cannot have hundreds, or even thousands of people forced to live in crowded places, where proper social distancing is impossible, and the risk of coronavirus transmission is incredibly high. The ‘Everyone In’ scheme saw unprecedented efforts to protect people, and undoubtedly saved lives – this must be repeated. As we face a second wave of coronavirus, Government must provide somewhere for each and every person sleeping on our streets to live and self-isolate safely.”

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians said: “This winter is set to be one of the hardest we’ve faced, particularly with the added pressure of COVID-19. For those who are homeless, or who have been pushed into homelessness by the pandemic, the threat is even more acute. 

“We know that the efforts made to support homeless people during the first phase of the pandemic were truly life-saving. As we enter a second wave of COVID-19, these steps need to happen again. 

“Without urgent action from the government to keep homeless people off the streets this winter, lives will most certainly be lost.”