Nicola Sturgeon: 'Straightforward mistakes’ possible on care homes
At the Scottish Government's coronavirus briefing, she was quizzed on the last night's emotional BBC Disclosure programme, which included emotional and powerful testimonies from care home staff and families of residents who had died from Covid-19.
There were also allegations that care homes had been “pressured" into accepting elderly hospital patients, and that evidence of a need for masks to be worn by care home staff went unheeded. Ms Sturgeon, and Health Secretary Jeane Freemen, were also criticised for failing to be interviewed for the hard-hitting documentary.
Today she said she refused to “be defensive” about the government’s actions but that she absolutely accepted “I am accountable for that”. She added that the impact of coronavirus on Scotland's care homes “breaks my heart”.
Care homes have accounted for more than half of all coronavirus deaths in Scotland since the start of the pandemic, and there were also around 2,400 more deaths in care homes than would normally be expected during the lockdown period, with Covid-19 named as the underlying cause in 79 per cent of the excess deaths.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I watched the documentary and it raised very important issues, and not to underplay the importance of those issues, there was not a single issue that I have not stood here, day in and day out, answering questions on and I will do that as long as it takes.
"All of these issues have been raised rightly on many occasions and I’ve said openly that we took decisions around care homes in good faith based on the best evidence and advice a the time. We will have made mistakes on all aspects of the handling and I refuse to be defensive about that though I absolutely accept I am accountable for that.
“But some of those things that people will look back now and say were mistakes, will be being informed by things we didn't know then or didn’t know as clearly then, and that is in the nature of dealing with an infection like Covid which we haven't dealt with before and still don't understand to the fullest extent that we would want to.”
Asked about the allegation that care homes felt “pressured” into accepting residents from hospitals, she said: “I’m not sure that's a fair characterisation.
“The number of people who died in care homes and the way this pandemic has affected care homes breaks my heart and deeply upsets me and there are real questions all of us need to ask about what was done, why it was done and whether it could be done differently – because we may be facing a further challenge from Covid down the line.
"I've never been less defensive, because it's so important we don't be defensive because the need to learn these lessons is so vital to all of us.”
She added: “It's entirely possible straightforward mistakes were made and if that's the case we all have to recognise that and be accountable in the normal way for that. But much of what we're talking about, if we cast our minds back, is based on knowledge we have now that we didn't have then and I don't have the ability to turn the clock back.
“We are talking about people who had no medical need to be in hospital – and until Covid most of the pressure that governments like mine were under was to reduce delayed discharge – coupled with, at the start of Covid, a real fear that our hospital system was about to be overwhelmed and also the view that a hospital for an older perosn with no medical need to be there, was not the best place for them.
"That's why we did try to get people who didn't need to be in hospital into more approproate settings. So the idea there was pressure... that was what was going on at that time, and you can look back now and think that was right or wrong or whatever but that was what was happening at that time and back then I was losing sleep about ICU and hopsital capacity being overwhlemed, and thankfully that didn't happen.”
Ms Sturgeon and the Chief Nursing Officer, Profesor Fiona McQueen, both said that people were only discharged into care homes after with clinical risk assessments and infection prevention and control guidance were in place.
SorrowProfessor McQueen said she had watched the programme “with a great deal of sorrow and the deepest respect for the relatives who are bereaved and the staff who recounted their distress”.
She said people were charged to care homes “in partnership with social work departments and with the care home, who needs to agree they have approriate room and staffing and the ward themselves would need to agree that person was fit to go to the care home.”
On masks for staff, she added: “The mask situation in care homes was the same as it was within our NHS, so health and social care staff during March were advised to wear masks when caring for people with overt Covid systems, that changed in April to all health and social care staff wearing a mask at all times. The further advice in June would be about care home managers also wearing masks, so it was ultra cautious.”
Asked why she didn't take part in the documentary, Ms Sturgeon said: “There are only so many hours in the day even for me and I have to prioritise my time so there wasn’t time to do a specific interview but I don't think even my harshest critic would say reasonably that I haven't subjected myself to a great feal of scrutiny as people have a right to expect of me, on every aspect on the handling of this pandemic, and I will continue to do that.”
However Scottish Labour Leader Richard Leonard said the “harrowing testimonies” on the programme should “shame the Scottish Government”.
He said that the human rights “of thousands of care residents have been disregarded and government guidance on discharge and access to medical treatment has led to thousands of deaths.”
“That over one thousand patients were discharged into care homes in March and April without a testing regime in place is nothing short of a scandal," he added. "The Scottish Government has failed its duty to protect the lives of the most vulnerable in our society and for this there must be a reckoning.”
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