The Welsh Government’s rapid response to protect people experiencing homelessness from the spread of COVID-19 has resulted in lower rates of infection amongst this section of the population, compared with the general population in Wales, according to new research published today in the International Journal of Population Data Science (IJPDS).

By investing £50 million at an early stage to protect this vulnerable group, Wales has established a global benchmark for reducing the transmission of COVID-19 and its possible future variants amongst people experiencing homelessness, by eliminating the use of communal living spaces.

This compelling research provides new insights and adds to international evidence on the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 amongst people experiencing homelessness in the UK, with important policy implications.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted widespread concern about the potential impact of the virus on people experiencing homelessness. These concerns focused upon people who were literally roofless and those in communal forms of accommodation, such as shelters and hostels, where facilities and air space were shared. It was feared these environments could hamper a person’s ability to adhere to public health instructions regarding hand hygiene, maintaining physical distancing, and isolation.

Fuelling these concerns, there have been many studies looking into coronavirus and homelessness during the course of the pandemic that have frequently showed higher rates of infection amongst people experiencing homeless compared to general populations. However, these studies largely focused on people in hostels and shelters, particularly those conducted in North America.

Homelessness covers a breadth of experiences. Besides shelters and hostels, it can include people living on the streets, staying with family or friends (‘sofa surfing’) or in unsuitable housing. By studying infection rates and homelessness in this broader sense, researchers have found that, compared to the general population, coronavirus infection rates were lower amongst people experiencing homelessness.

The findings of this research were made possible by using routinely collected population level data in Wales provided by SAIL Databank. Being conducted in Wales also provided the research team with the opportunity to explore coronavirus infection in a homelessness policy response setting that differed considerably to responses in many other parts of the world.

In Wales, people living on the street were offered accommodation at an unprecedented rate. There was also a move towards placing people in self-contained accommodation, and the closure of communal accommodation.

These changes meant that people experiencing homelessness had housing that reduced household mixing, and where they could isolate if needed. In many other countries, hostels and shelters continued to be used widely, albeit with additional measures in place to mitigate infection, such as social distancing.

Dr Ian Thomas, lead author of the article explained;

“The key finding of this study is that the homelessness sector’s fears about very high rates of infection amongst people experiencing homelessness were avoided. We believe the unprecedented policy and practice response in Wales, which focused on swift commissioning of self-contained accommodation, and the decommissioning of many communal shelters, is likely to have played a role in this outcome.”

The research team plan to follow on their analysis by exploring the potential impacts of the Welsh Government decision to prioritise people experiencing homelessness for vaccination.


Click here to read the full open access article

Dr Ian Thomas, ADRC Research Support Officer, WISERD, Cardiff University

Thomas, I. and Mackie, P. (2020) “A population level study of SARS-CoV-2 prevalence amongst people experiencing homelessness in Wales, UK”, International Journal of Population Data Science, 5(4). doi: 10.23889/ijpds.v5i4.1695.