We’ve known for some time now that the failure to protect residents in care homes for the elderly has been a major factor in coronavirus death tolls in many parts of the world. But a recent newspaper report has added a new dimension to the scandal.
Here in Scotland, as in other parts of the UK, there has been outrage that elderly people in hospital were discharged into care homes without being tested for Covid-19 in a desperate rush to clear hospital beds.
That seems incredibly negligent. But now we have confirmation that patients were sent to care homes after testing positive for Covid-19. That seems downright criminal.
Last weekend, a Scottish Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Post, reported that at least five local health boards decided to transfer patients into care homes despite positive tests, amounting to at least 37 patients. Another six health boards said they either didn’t transfer such patients or waited at least until the patients would no longer be infectious. But the figures could be much higher. Of the two biggest health boards approached, NHS Lothian (which covers Edinburgh) didn’t respond and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said it would be too expensive to check its records to find out.
Moving Covid-19 patients into care homes is lunacy beyond belief, taking them from settings with high standards of hygiene and medical facilities into care homes which were simply not equipped to keep coronavirus cases in proper isolation and which are full of the people most vulnerable to the disease – the old.
Care homes are also notoriously under-staffed, so it would be difficult, if not impossible, to allocate staff just to take care of these infected patients – especially when many care staff themselves were falling ill or being asked to self-isolate.
For example, BBC Scotland’s Disclosure programme, broadcast in July, found that the authorities were warned about staff shortages at care homes on 179 occasions between April 3 and June 17. In particular, the programme found that 30 ‘red’ warnings were issued to care homes by the Care Inspectorate during this period because there were insufficient staff to care for patients properly, even for routine care.
Moreover, in the first few weeks of the epidemic in Scotland, care homes were desperately short of the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed. In fact, the Scottish government waited until the end of June before making it compulsory for staff to wear face masks in care homes. So any infection would have a much higher than normal risk of spreading into the rest of the care home, among the very people who were most likely to suffer serious illness and death.
Nearly 77 percent of coronavirus deaths in Scotland have been in people aged 75 and over according to the latest figures, with almost half of all coronavirus deaths occurring in care homes.
Set against the anxiety in the past few weeks about sending children back to school – there have been zero deaths of anyone under 15 in Scotland from coronavirus – this complacency around the fate of the elderly is even more astonishing.
No wonder that in May Scotland’s senior law officer, the Lord Advocate James Woolfe, set up a special unit to investigate deaths among care home residents and staff.
Challenged about the Sunday Post revelations by the media at a press conference this week, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave the usual flannel about mistakes being made because we didn’t know enough about the virus. Guidelines had been issued early on. Ah yes, guidelines – the arse-covering insurance policy for every modern politician.
Perhaps Sturgeon should have been asking to what extent care homes were capable of dealing with Covid-19 patients and following those guidelines. What were the pressures being placed on health boards and care homes that could have led to the extraordinary decision to put patients into care homes after testing positive?
The Sunday Post quoted Allyson Pollock, professor of public health at Newcastle University, who rightly commented: “It is quite shocking that some health boards discharged patients to care homes who had tested positive for Covid-19. It’s like putting a lit match to dry tinder and starting a forest fire because we know that infection control measures weren’t good in care homes, we know care homes were understaffed and we know that older people are very vulnerable to Covid-19. Some of these hospitals were just desperate to get rid of bed-blocking patients to clear beds.”
This surely goes beyond the usual issues of politicians making mistakes in the handling of a crisis where it is unclear just what is going on. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 creates an offence, called “corporate homicide” in Scotland, where the way an organisation’s activities are managed or organised causes a person’s death and there is a “gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased.” If putting Covid-positive patients into care homes did lead to deaths, as seems extremely likely, surely there should be criminal charges issued against those responsible.
Over the past few months I have, sadly, become accustomed to the myriad failings of governments over their handling of this pandemic. But this is perhaps the most shocking, most egregious abuse of all, and heads should roll.
Header: Edinburgh, Scotland © Jane Barlow/PA – Image via Getty Images
Original: Rob Lyons – RT