SCOTLAND must provide care home residents with vitamin D supplements to save lives during the “second wave” of coronavirus, campaigners claim.

The UK Government is set to unveil free supplies for those in England later this week to match a programme in New Zealand, where there have been only 16 Covid-19 deaths among the elderly in care throughout the whole pandemic.

Meanwhile, a new French study has shown that taking regular supplements cut mortality risk by 93 per cent among those with the virus on a geriatric hospital ward.

Around 2,000 elderly people died from Covid-19 in Scottish care homes in the spring and outbreaks in recent weeks have claimed another 100 lives. 

Vitamin D expert Dr Helga Rhein, a recently-retired Edinburgh GP, added: “If ministers really are ‘following the science’, this cannot be ignored any longer.

“The evidence showing the benefit of vitamin D for the immune system in the face of infection is overwhelming and the experiences of countries the same size as Scotland are remarkable.

“The pandemic means many in our care homes didn’t see much spring and summer sunshine so their vitamin D levels will be even lower than usual.

“Time is running desperately short if they are to have the potentially life-saving nutrition they need this winter.”

Vitamin D boosts the immune system, protecting against respiratory infections, a category that includes flu and Covid-19.

But it’s found in few foods and the body replenishes its stocks through the action of sunlight on the skin, which means Scots are more at risk from deficiency, particularly in the winter.

Low levels are rife in care home residents, the obese and those with darker skin, who have all been hit hardest by the pandemic.

Scotland recommends a daily supplement of 10 microgrammes but is now out of step with Europe where most countries tell their elderly to take a double-dose.

Finland has the continent’s best vitamin D levels, a decade after it ordered dairy products to be fortified and advised older people to increase their intake.

It has had 149 Covid-19 care home deaths.

New Zealand, too, has fortified food but home residents are also given monthly vitamin D doses of 50,000 international units, approximately four times the amount a person following Scottish guidelines would consume in the same period.

Their average vitamin D level is 90 nanomoles per litre of blood compared to a typical reading of 40 among elderly Scots.

The body needs at least 50 to operate effectively.

Angers University’s latest research – published in the journal Nutrients – found that only seven per cent of elderly Covid-19 sufferers died if they had taken vitamin D regularly, compared with 31% among those who hadn’t.

And a recent study of English care homes by Brighton University public health lecturer Carol Williams found facilities are unaware of the hormone’s importance.

Last night, she said: “The vitamin D evidence seems to be mounting. We know from years of working in nutrition in low income countries, that malnourished children suffer worse from infections.  

“We don’t seem to have joined the dots: vitamin D deficiency is a form of malnutrition and we are expecting malnourished elderly care home residents to fight off Covid-19 infections.”

The Scottish Government is currently offering free supplements to people shielding from the virus due to weakened immune systems – but is refusing to extend the scheme.

But it emerged at the weekend that England is set to go further by giving care home residents south of the Border four months’ supplies.

Scottish Labour health spokesman Monica Lennon said: “It’s frustrating that the Scottish Government is trailing behind other countries when it comes to tackling vitamin D deficiency.

“I welcome free supplements for people who are shielding, however, why should care home residents be left out?

“It’s time the Scottish Government extended free vitamin D supplements to care home residents.”

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron added: “If vitamin D can have a positive effect then ministers must act quickly to see if there is a practical way this could potentially be used to control the virus.”

There have been dozens of deaths in care in the last month, including 15 at the Redmill home in Whitburn, West Lothian, and 10 at Charnwood Lodge in Dumfries. In all, 137 homes are currently dealing with cases.

Last night, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “We advise that everyone should consider taking a daily 10 microgramme supplement to protect bone and muscle health, particularly during the autumn and winter months.

“Decisions on whether to prescribe vitamin D for people in care homes will be made on an individual basis taking account of residents’ needs.

“We are aware that evidence around vitamin D and Covid-19 is constantly evolving and we will continue to look to the [UK’s] Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition for advice as that evidence develops.”