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Sturgeon’s accountability for care home scandal cannot be delayed

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Promises of a Scotland-specific public inquiry unfulfilled, a botched job protecting care homes and an allergy to accountability. Truth is, the SNP have failed our most vulnerable. 

THE LAST SNP MANIFESTO said they would commission a public inquiry “into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Scotland”. And it “will begin to take the necessary steps to establish the public inquiry as soon as possible after the election”

Really? Strange then the First Minister is no longer saying “as soon as possible” now that her election has been and gone. Instead, the new line is to refuse “until the remit of UK-wide inquiry is known”. Can delaying things for potentially more than a year really be “as soon as possible”?

This is a First Minister who has pushed repeatedly a ‘made in Scotland’ pandemic response, yet is now suddenly reluctant to launch a judge-led Scotland-specific public inquiry. The same Scottish Government that has attempted to wrap in the saltire its entire handling of covid now thinks a ‘Scottish’ public inquiry must wait a year on what happens in London (of all places). But if we look at ScotGov’s mishandling of care homes during the pandemic, the First Minister’s damascene conversion to respecting rather than pre-empting Westminster is not such a mystery.

The fact is SNP policy choices have had a damaging impact on care home residents.

  • It was the SNP government that decided to transfer untested hospital patients into care homes.
  • It was the SNP government that decided to continue with the transfers in Scotland even though Matt Hancock had stopped the practice in England.
  • It was this First Minister who decided what balance was struck between reducing covid mortality by restricting family access and the harm of such social isolation on care home residents.

The recent study ‘Impact of COVID-19 on care-home mortality and life expectancy in Scotland’ found that while care-home residents only account for 5 per cent of the Scottish population aged 70-years and older, “they account for 52 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths in this age group (and 44 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths).”

It is not possible to deny that the pandemic impact has been disproportionate on the older age groups; nor is it possible to deny its disproportionate impact on highly vulnerable age groups inside Scottish nursing homes.

Indeed, the report found the percentage of deaths among female care home residents in the month of April 2016-19 was 29-32 per cent, but skyrocketed in April 2020 to 42 per cent. This, alongside the finding that “life expectancy in care-home residents during the pandemic fell by almost 6 months” is truly shocking.

All of this only builds on what previous studies uncovered. In 2020, a report by the University of Stirling revealed Scotland had highest number of care home Covid cases in UK. The report led by Professor David Bell compared mortality across care homes from mid-March (when the lockdown began) until end of June 2020. It found almost 65 per cent of Scotland’s care homes had suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases; compared to only 44 per cent of homes in England, 37 per cent in Northern Ireland and 33 per cent in Wales.

So, is it unfair to draw a connection to the fact Nicola Sturgeon’s government moved 1,431 untested patients from hospitals and into care homes? They did this from March 1st to April 21st, 2020. And after they were forced to come clean, the SNP still had the chutzpah to claim “at all times our actions have been guided by the best and most up-to-date expert scientific and medical advice”.

Why don’t we let a judge-led public inquiry decide the truth of that claim?

But the fact remains, more than 1,400 elderly people were sent into Scottish care homes before any robust testing regime was in place. This undoubtedly contributed to Scottish care home deaths from Covid-19. Nicola Sturgeon has since conceded “with hindsight” she considered this a mistake.

That is one heck of a mistake First Minister – especially when people at the time without the benefit of hindsight were saying it made no sense.

But we should also consider the fall in life expectancy in care homes from another angle too. It raises questions about the balance that was struck between socially isolating care home residents to protect them and the negative impact from restricting visiting. The ‘Impact of Covid-19 on care-homes’ study reported “While Covid-19 has proved a measurable outcome, the mental health impacts and well-being of residents have been more difficult to quantify objectively. Future pandemic planning therefore needs to engage with residents and their families to discover how best this balance could be struck.”

This is why the campaign for ‘Anne’s Law’ has gathered pace. When Natasha Hamilton’s mother Anne Duke was cut off from her family while battling early onset dementia, the issue of this imbalance was captured in a single heart-wrenching example.

Ms Hamilton called on the Scottish Government to introduce emergency legislation to give nominated relatives or friends the same access rights to care homes as staff (following infection control). Her petition was signed by tens of thousands, and the campaign for the emergency legislation succeeded in securing the backing of all opposition parties.

But instead of introducing emergency legislation for ‘Anne’s Law’, the SNP delayed until the election. They then made a manifesto commitment to introduce legislation if they won the election. I cannot help but notice however that the SNP did have time to announce a draft bill on another independence referendum prior to the election. 

This leads us to the wider point about ScotGov’s allergic reaction to accountability.

Conor Matchett of The Scotsman has written “transparency remains one of the Scottish Government’s Achilles heels” and he is not wrong. Throughout the pandemic, ScotGov has demonstrated an allergy to accountable, transparent governance – especially regarding their handling of care homes.

Recent revelations have revealed the Scottish Government sought to delay damaging mortality statistics about Scottish care homes until after the May elections were over.

In September 2020 National Records Scotland (NRS) received a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. It should have been routine, with the data requested released promptly. And the NRS had agreed to release it, but that is not what happened.

Instead, Fiona Hyslop MSP, the then-SNP cabinet secretary for the economy intervened to block detailed information about the scale of Covid-19 deaths in individual care-homes from becoming public. Information that should have become public in February 2021 was delayed until May, just beyond the Holyrood election.

Nicola Sturgeon has said, “National Records Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government, which means that it operates in these kinds of decisions independently of ministers”.

But why does NRS Chief Executive Paul Lowe’s emails reveal rampant ScotGov interference in the NRS decision making processes? In an email sent February 2nd, Mr Lowe refers to Fiona Hyslop & ScotGov wishing to prevent publication.

 

You can hardly claim the NRS decision making process is independent when you read email correspondence like that. And, by ‘stakeholders’ you should read people with a vested interest in keeping the data secret.

A First Minister, whose re-election pitch boasted of being a ‘safe pair of hands’ to trust with the pandemic, successfully interfered in delaying key information about the pandemic in care homes. Embarrassing information was delayed thanks to government interference, her government’s interference.

Less than a week before the NRS was to release the FOI requested information, it U-turned, and information in the public interest prior to an election was hidden. 

Can you imagine the “humble crofter” Ian Blackford’s jowls wobbling in outrage had this been a Westminster Tory government behaving in such a fashion?

An investigation by the Information Commissioner subsequently ruled the government body NRS “failed to comply with FOI legislation”. Or put it another way, a government body broke the law to avoid legally mandated transparency.

I wonder why Fiona Hyslop announced her resignation as a cabinet minister ahead of Nicola Sturgeon’s reshuffle post-election? Heaven forfend any cynical mind might assume it had something to do with her role in NRS failure to abide by FOI law.

Back in August 2020 Professor Bell found that “In Scotland, 47 percent of deaths attributed to Covid-19 occurred in care homes. This compares with 42 percent in Northern Ireland, 30 percent in England and 28 percent in Wales.” He also found that Scotland’s excess deaths rate was 62 per cent. Fast forward to May this year, and we know of more than 10,000 Covid-related deaths in Scotland with about a third in care homes.

The first minister has said it is too soon to be comparing statistics while “still in the teeth of a pandemic”. But with the vaccine rollout happening apace, we are no longer in the teeth of the pandemic, meaning we do not need to wait a year for a judge-led, Scotland-specific public inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic – that includes the treatment of care homes by Nicola Sturgeon and her minsters.

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