Jeane Freeman admits moving patients to care homes without right precautions 'was a mistake'
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Jeane Freeman said the government had also failed to properly understand the needs of social care and that its mistakes created “a real problem” for elderly residents and staff in care homes.
Her admission, on the BBC’s podcast Political Thinking with Nick Robinson, came as Scotland’s Covid-related deaths surpassed 10,000 – of which a third happened in care homes.
In the first three months of the pandemic, a total of 3,061 patients had been moved from hospitals to care homes without being tested prior to discharge.
From March to May, 113 patients were discharged from hospitals to care homes having had a positive Covid-19 test, but no subsequent negative test.
During her interview Ms Freeman, who is retiring from Holyrood at next month's election, said: “We didn't take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital and going into care homes were as safe as they could be, and that was a mistake.
"I think our failures were not understanding the social care sector well enough.
"So we didn't respond quickly enough to what was needed in our care homes, but also in social care in the community."
Her comments have sparked an outcry from opposition politicians.
Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross said: “It’s a disgrace that the SNP covered up their mistake for so long. Their report on care home deaths was delayed and when it was finally published, they tried to spin it.
“The transfer of Covid-positive patients didn’t just cause a ‘real problem’, as Jeane Freeman states, it cost many vulnerable people their lives.
“We now know why the SNP refused to launch an immediate public inquiry as Parliament demanded. They made a grave error and instead of fronting it up, they tried to hide it from the public.
“People will be left wondering – why is Jeane Freeman only willing to admit such a huge mistake was made now?”
Scottish Labour's deputy leader Jackie Baillie added: "These admissions will offer no comfort to the families of those who needlessly lost loved ones due to the Scottish government's errors."
Dr Donald MacAskill from Scottish Care, an organisation that’s representative for independent social care, told the BBC that the emphasis on protecting the NHS in the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic meant that there was too little focus on protecting those in social care.
During the podcast, Mr Robinson challenged Ms Freeman about Scotland having the highest death rate in care homes compared to other countries in the UK.
He asked the health secretary how she would summarise the main issue behind the Scottish government’s “mistake.”
Ms Freeman replied: "We wanted people who didn't need to stay in hospital any longer, because they'd been treated and they were clinically well, to be discharged as quickly as possible so we freed up those beds for Covid patients.
"Remember, the early predictions about the number of people going into hospital were terrifying actually.
"But we didn't take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake.
"Now, I might argue we couldn't do anything other than we did and all the rest of it. But it still created a real problem for those older people and for the others who lived in care homes and for the staff who worked in care homes."
In January, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s dedicated Covid-19 Death Investigation Team (CDIT) announced that it was probing the circumstances of coronavirus-related deaths in 474 care homes across the country.
The CDIT was set up in May after Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC said all confirmed or suspected coronavirus deaths in care homes should be reported to the Crown Office, as well as deaths of people who may have contracted the virus at work.
Once investigations have been completed prosecutors will decide if the care home deaths should be the subject of a fatal accident inquiry or prosecution.
An SNP spokeswoman said the mistakes made had already been acknowledged by the government.
She said: “The Scottish Government commissioned extensive work to review the links between hospital discharges and the impact of covid in our care homes and we have acknowledged that mistakes were made.
"The First Minister has committed to establishing a public inquiry into the handling of Covid, in which the voices of families would be heard, by the end of the year and we hope other governments across the UK will come together to support such an inquiry on a four nations basis.”