Demands for urgent inquiry into discharge of COVID patients to care homes
Pressure is mounting on the Scottish Government to bring forward the public inquiry into its handling of coronavirus, following reports that hospital patients who tested positive for the infection were knowingly sent to care homes in the early days of the outbreak.
The Sunday Post reported that 37 such patients were discharged to care homes in at least five health boards areas.
Nearly half of all deaths from COVID in Scotland have been linked to care homes.
Scottish Labour has written to the Lord Advocate requesting that the Crown Office unit tasked with investigating care home deaths urgently examine the effect these hospital discharges may have had, while the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats called for the promised public inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic to be set up without delay.
The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, speaking at her daily briefing, pointed to guidance in place from 13 March requiring screening of patients being transferred from hospitals to care homes.
She said it was inappropriate for her to comment on calls for the Crown Office to investigate but on the timing of a public inquiry, said her government was continuing to consider the matter. She added that while proper scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s coronavirus response in a public inquiry was “really essential”, it was important that those involved in the response remained focused on the ongoing pandemic.
Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour’s health and social care spokesperson, described care home deaths as “the crisis within a crisis”.
She said: “Tragically, thousands of older people have died and there must be accountability for decisions that led to the virus infiltrating care homes in the first place.
“It will be extremely distressing to impacted families to learn that COVID-19 positive patients were knowingly discharged from hospital to care homes, and the least they deserve is a commitment that this will be thoroughly investigated.
“That’s why I’m asking the Lord Advocate and Police Scotland to confirm what plans are in place to examine how this happened, and whether any legal action needs to be taken. The Scottish Government has failed to be transparent and that is unacceptable.”
She said the Lord Advocate’s inquiry should include consideration of whether it was a widespread policy, who was aware of it, and how many cases and eventual deaths can be linked to the discharges.
For the Scottish Conservatives, health spokesperson Donald Cameron called on ministers to begin a public inquiry into the matter straight away.
He said: “The horrendous decision to send dozens of COVID patients to care homes cannot be swept under the carpet any longer.
“Families of victims have been left in the dark about how their loved ones died – and they still don’t know the full picture.
“There can be no more delays and secrecy. Light must be shone on how this scandal happened immediately.
“The SNP must begin an inquiry into how COVID patient were sent to care homes – and it has to start this week. Waiting is not an option.”
Discussing the importance of a public inquiry, Sturgeon said: “That scrutiny will and must include consideration of whether, based on what we knew at each stage, the guidance in place was both appropriate and properly implemented and that of course is why we have committed to a public inquiry in due course.
“However, I want to again be clear also that while there will undoubtedly be lessons to learn when a new virus is encountered, and we take that very seriously, care was taken to put guidance in place that was considered to be appropriate at every stage.
“For example, from mid-March that included guidance requiring clinical screening of patients being transferred from hospitals to care homes, to guard against inappropriate transfers. It also advised social isolation within care homes. However, it is right that all of this is properly scrutinised in the inquiry that will be instructed in due course.”
She said the Scottish Government had tried to learn lessons "as we go" and the need for examining past decisions had to be balanced against dealing with the ongoing pandemic. She said: “I don’t think I would be serving anybody well if I took everybody, whether they were in the Scottish Government team or the health service or social care or our public health teams across the country, if I took their focus away from dealing with a pandemic that we are not through yet, into looking back for the purposes or an inquiry.”
The Sunday Post said the COVID-positive cases discharged to care homes were in Ayrshire and Arran (17 cases), Grampian (seven), Tayside (six), Fife (four) and Lanarkshire (three).
Shetland, Orkney, Western Isles, Forth Valley, and Dumfries and Galloway health boards said they did not discharge any patients who had tested positive. NHS Borders said two patients were transferred three weeks after testing positive when no longer infectious.
Not all health boards provided information in response to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information (FoI) request, raising the possibility that the true figure for discharges of infected patients could be higher.
NHS Lothian and NHS Highland did not respond, while NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde refused to it on the grounds of cost, according to the paper.