FMQS: Nicola Sturgeon under pressure to step up testing for care home workers

Nicola Sturgeon at FMQs.Nicola Sturgeon at FMQs.
Nicola Sturgeon at FMQs.
Nicola Sturgeon has defended the government’s coronavirus testing policy for care home staff after revelations that workers at a home where 22 residents died had still not been screened for Covid-19.

Both Jackson Carlaw and Richard Leonard raised the concerns of staff at the Highgate care home in Uddingston, exposed by a Channel 4 report last night, branding the lack of testing an “outrage”.

The programme heard from staff members that a resident had “died every day” at the height of the outbreak in mid-March with 22 lives lost, but that despite residents being tested, staff had not been screened for coronavirus despite being potential carriers.

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The party leaders also quizzed Ms Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions, over figures which appeared to show that Scotland’s care home death toll was twice the rate as that in England.

Revealing the latest statistics, Ms Sturgeon said deaths in care homes "made up 57 per cent” of all Covid-19 fatalities in the last week, slightly down from the previous week. She said that there were 238 care home deaths in the last seven days, down from 314 the week before, and while the numbers were “still too high”, progress was being made.

Raising the “harrowing” Channel 4 report, Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw said it was an “outrage” that the majority of carers at the Highgate home had not been tested and questioned if the same was happening elsewhere.

“Fewer tests in our care home, more deaths in our care homes,” he said. “Fixing testing must be this government’s over-riding focus and it’s clear it hasn’t been. Mistakes were made at the start and they have led to the excess deaths we see today. In light of the tragedy in Uddingston and others, when it comes to testing in care homes, by any standards this is a failure.”

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MS Sturgeon said “speaking not as First Minister, but as a human being, I deeply regret every single death from this virus, and I think all of us are in that position.

“When I first stood in this chamber and talked about what we’re dealing with, I said mistakes would be made… we’re dealing with an unprecedented situation. There isn’t an hour goes by when I don’t question myself, I don't agonise over the decisions we’re taking to make sure we’re learning as we go and getting these decisions as right as possible.

“On testing we have dramatically increased our testing capacity and the number of tests being done. But testing is clinically driven. These are not pleasant tests, they are invasive, so there has to be a clinical judgement on when they are necessary and when they are not.”

She added: “We now have testing of all residents and all staff whether or not they are symptomatic of the virus. Those efforts in testing and infection prevention and control are driven by the leadership of public health directors in each health board area. We now have enhanced surveillance in care homes where there is a virus and surveillance across all care homes.

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“Where there are concerns raised about individual care homes we will look into those very carefully and discuss with public health directors, local health protection teams and the Care Inspectorate whethere there are issues which require to be addressed and we will address them urgently.

“The situation in care homes, UK wide and globally has been one of the most distressing factors of a very distressing situation overall. This is a virus which is hitting older people particularly hard and that makes the obligation on all of us to protect older people as best as we can all the greater.”

However, Mr Carlaw said that the government’s policy was obviously not working on the ground if care home staff were not being tested.

She said: “It is the policy which is and should be pursued in every care home where there is an outbreak. Where there are, and I’ve said this all along, with every aspect of this virus, be it testing or PPE, where it’s reported to us any instance where on the face of it what should be happening is not, we will investigate that.”

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Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, also raised the care home report and the lack of staff testing, and asked why figures showed the proportion of deaths in Scottish care homes was double that in England and Wales.

Ms Sturgeon said that the figures published in Scotland were accurate, and she “wasn’t sure” that was the same in other parts of the UK. She pointed to a new report out today by the London School of Economics, which suggests that more than 22,000 care home residents in England and Wales may have died as a direct or indirect result of Covid-19 – more than double the number stated as passing away from the disease in official figures.

“I’m not interested in political comparisons as it’s not relevant to me right now,” she said. “But I want to challenge this, that the death toll in care homes is double in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. I do not believe that is the case. The disparity is down to under-reporting in the rest of the UK.”

Mr Leonard pointed to evidence given to MSPs last week by former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Harry Burns, that in care homes the virus was likely to be spread unwittingly by nursing staff.

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He said staff were carrying the “burden of anxiety and guilt” at the idea they could be spreading the virus between residents who were being isolated to their own rooms and asked Ms Sturgeon to give a “guarantee” staff could be tested locally, rather than having to travel to drive-through testing centres.

Ms Sturgeon said: “We know this virus is spreading more aggressively in care homes partly because of the nature of the population of care homes but because it’s an institutional setting. That is why we do take a different approach to the outbreak in care homes with testing and infection control.

"The death toll in care homes, not just in Scotland but globally is an absolute tragedy. There’s not a minute goes by that I don't reflect on that.

We have a number of routes people can get tested through, but care home workers like NHS staff, should be tested through their NHS board. They can go onto the online portal and book a test at a drive through or mobile test centre, but they shouldn’t have to do that, it should be provided by their health board and be done locally to them.”

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She said she wanted to put on record her “overwhleming gratitude” to staff and they should not feel guilt as they are “doing an extraordinary job in horrendous circumstances.”

Asked if she would guarantee regular, twice-weekly testing of care home staff, she said: “We will continue to expand our approach to testing based on clinical advice.”

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