The study, undertaken by academics at University College London, found that by bringing thousands of people sleeping rough into hotels, closing dormitory-style night shelters in favour of individual rooms, and putting infection control measures in place at hostels, an estimated 266 lives were saved.
The researchers are now calling for this analysis to be taken into consideration by the government when dealing with the second-wave of infections during the pandemic.
Most importantly, they say that vulnerable people must still have access to the single-room accommodation provided.
Prof. Andrew Hayward from UCL’s department of Epidemiology and Health Care and a senior author of the study, told reporters that there needed to be “renewed commitment to protecting the most vulnerable."
"We urgently need alternative emergency single room accommodation so that communal night-shelters are not forced to reopen,” Hayward added.
Researchers used computer modelling to retrospectively examine the UK's lockdown period and spread of COVID-19 among populations of people experiencing homelessness at the time.
They analysed the infection rate and outcomes among 46,565 people experiencing homelesssness in England. Of that group, 35,817 were living in more than 1,000 hostels; 3,616 people were sleeping in 143 night shelters; and 7,132 people were sleeping on the streets, before the lockdown and the “Everyone in” scheme began.
They found that 4% of that population contracted COVID-19, leading to 24 deaths, by the end of May. But without those interventions, there could have 21,092 infections, 266 more deaths, and 1,164 hospital admissions among the same group.
It then extrapolated that, with the accommodation provided and infection-control measures remaining in place, and under current predictions about COVID-19 circulating around the country, there would be 1,754 new coronavirus infections, 31 deaths, and 122 hospital admissions among this same population from June 1 to the end of January 2021.
The results, published in the Lancet medical journal on Sept. 23, give an indication of what might happen as measures to protect homeless people are relaxed. People who were initially given space in empty hotels mostly left in June, and hostel and night shelter providers are currently scrambling to put in place appropriately socially-distanced places.
Even without a second wave, relaxing measures in homeless settings could lead to more than 12,000 new infections and 184 deaths, the researchers warned.
“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,” explained UCL’s Dan Lewer, the lead researcher of the study.
Kelly Tolhurst, the minister for rough sleeping and housing, said that the study shows that the government took “decisive action” at the height of the pandemic.
She added: "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."