We must acknowledge Scotland’s Covid catastrophe – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Without blaming anyone, it is time to recognise that the deadly outbreaks of Covid-19 coronavirus in Scotland’s care homes are a disaster that we must learn from, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh WesternAlex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western

With the publication of a wide-ranging exposé by the New York Times, the scandal and the tragedy of what happened in Home Farm care home on Skye has become globally noteworthy.

As well as forensic analysis of what happened in the home, it explores deficiencies in a model of care that we will need to urgently revisit in the aftermath of this pandemic. More importantly, it also speaks to a particularly Scottish problem around coronavirus deaths in care homes.

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Scottish care home deaths due to Covid-19 are among the worst in Europe and nearly twice the rate of other UK nations. All told, they account for 45 per cent of Covid deaths in this country. We need to understand how this catastrophe started now, so that we can prevent it happening again in a second Covid-19 wave or in some future pandemic. To do that we need to understand the decisions that were made in the foothills of this emergency.

Police are investigating Home Farm care home on Skye after the deaths of ten residents during a coronavirus outbreakPolice are investigating Home Farm care home on Skye after the deaths of ten residents during a coronavirus outbreak
Police are investigating Home Farm care home on Skye after the deaths of ten residents during a coronavirus outbreak
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Nicola Sturgeon: Older people may have died as result of care home policy

The minutes of the Scottish Government’s Covid advisory committee on 2 April reveal a range of priorities for the government, but two stand out:

One: that they wanted to better understand the transmission of the virus within Scottish hospitals.

Two: that they had resolved to better support the “mobilisation” of patients out of hospital and into social care. This second priority was part of the effort to free up NHS capacity for an expected “tsunami” of Covid cases that could test primary care to breaking point.

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I asked the First Minister for the scale of that decampment of elderly patients at First Minister’s Question time last week. She answered in percentages, but I pressed her for detail in a letter written after our exchange.

In their reply, the Government revealed that nearly 1,000 patients had been transferred from hospitals to care homes in March alone – much higher than they had previously signalled. When they’re published, April’s figures will likely add significantly to that total.

So, we now know that in early April the government and their advisors did not yet understand a problem with virus transmission inside our hospitals but at the same time were ramping up the discharge of over 1000 patients (whose Covid-status was unknown) from those same hospitals into Scotland’s care homes.

We didn’t know if these people had coronavirus, because we weren’t testing them before their transfer from hospital. In those critical months of high infection we were repeatedly told that there was no point testing asymptomatic patients and so we didn’t.

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In fact, Scottish Government guidance until mid-May suggested that care homes need not wait for a Covid test result from a resident coming in from hospital before admitting them. And so the mass exodus from hospital to care home continued. Nicola Sturgeon has accepted that in the light of what we know now, her government may have moved these patients elsewhere.

I recognise that these weren’t decisions based on ideology and that a politician of any stripe may very well have followed the same scientific advice, were they in the position of Scottish ministers. But without apportioning blame, we need to acknowledge that this has been nothing short of a catastrophe.

The fallout from a decision to fast-track patients from hospitals where the virus was moving around in unknown ways to our care homes without the benefit of a Covid test will haunt our country long after this emergency is over.

While hindsight will not bring back those grandparents, parents and life partners lost to this terrible disease in Scotland’s care homes, we must still learn from this. The lives of vulnerable people as yet uninfected may depend on it.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western

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