Scotland’s care home death toll is utterly shocking. We should have done more – leader comment

The fact that one in four Covid-19-related deaths in Scotland took place in care homes shows the need for urgent action.

We must do more to protect care home residents from the Covid-19 coronavirus

At a care home in Tranent, East Lothian, nine residents died within ten days. At another, in Dumbarton, West Dunbartonshire, the death toll was eight, while 13 people lost their lives at a North Lanarkshire home. All thought to be victims of Covid-19.

The fact that 237 out of the 962 deaths linked to the disease in Scotland up to 12 April took place in care homes should shock this country to its core, and all the more so because it was grimly predictable.

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Elderly people who require specialist care were obviously at increased risk from infection and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they have been badly let down by our lack of preparedness for this crisis and the failure to respond more quickly to their specific situation, with more than a hint of ageism.

The first mention of Covid-19 in a death registration in Scotland occurred in the week beginning 16 March. On that day, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, told governments: “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test.”

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This advice was especially pertinent for those living in care homes. The UK’s policy of ‘shielding’ the most vulnerable – an extreme form of self-isolation – was simply not possible for those unable to look after themselves. Care home staff are required to care in a most practical, hands-on sense. They will have done their best but the lack of testing means they will not have been able to tell who had been infected – staff or residents – until the symptoms became obvious.

There were also reports of care home staff not being able to get sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). It was only last week that Health Secretary Jeane Freeman apologised and withdrew official advice from the chief nursing officer that care home staff did not need to wear masks unless the resident had symptoms.

It should be remembered that PPE, particularly masks, helps stop the wearer from being infected but also from passing on the virus to others. It is a heartbreaking thought that a staff member who felt well but had caught the coronavirus may have unwittingly passed on the disease to a person they were caring for and may well have formed a bond of affection with.

Homes did take steps to limit visitors, but without enough PPE and testing, this was clearly nowhere near enough. And while there have been genuine problems with supplies of test kits, Germany was somehow still able to test far greater numbers of people than the UK and, to be fair, many other countries.

Speaking about the care home death toll, Nicola Sturgeon said that she wanted to make it “very clear – this shouldn’t need to be said but I want to say it anyway – that the residents of care homes matter every bit as much to us as people in the community or in hospital”.

But, as the First Minister acknowledged, treating them as equals actually means doing more for them because of their greater vulnerability. There should be no doubting the sincerity of her words but the actions of both the Scottish and UK governments have failed to live up to the sentiment expressed.

Some deaths may have been inevitable, but we could and should have done more for our fellow citizens of Scotland. And we should start doing so as quickly as possible.

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