Scottish care home workers left untested as residents died almost daily

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

Pressure mounted on the First Minister yesterday after opposition leaders in Holyrood raised the claims made by staff at the Highgate care home in Uddingston that they had not been screened for the virus, despite a resident dying every day at the height of the outbreak in March.

The disclosure of the failure to test the key workers came as Ms Sturgeon revealed care home deaths made up 57 per cent of all Covid-19 fatalities in Scotland last week, a slight fall of two percentage points from the previous week.

It was also announced yesterday that all key worker and care home resident deaths from coronavirus will now be passed to the Crown Office, potentially triggering a swathe of Fatal Accident Inquiries.

Nicola Sturgeon during First Minister's Questions held at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA Wire

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The high death rate in Scotland’s care homes has been raised every week by MSPs as numbers have soared, with the Scottish Government saying it has ramped up PPE for staff, and stopped elderly patients being moved from hospitals into residential care without two negative virus tests.

At Westminster yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £600 million package for coronavirus infection control in English care homes amid a row over advice issued at the start of the pandemic.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that up until 12 March, care homes were being told it was “very unlikely” anyone would become infected.

Mr Johnson said “it wasn’t true the advice said that”, and Downing Street later accused Sir Keir of “inaccurately and selectively” quoting from the government guidance.

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Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard went on the attack over care home deaths. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament/PA Wire

Meanwhile, at First Minister’s Questions in Ediburgh, Ms Sturgeon said there were 238 care home deaths in Scotland in the past seven days, down from 314 the week before, and while the numbers were “still too high”, progress was being made.

However, both Scottish Conservative and Labour leaders questioned her about the Highgate revelations, which were exposed by Channel 4 News, branding the lack of testing an “outrage”.

Staff members told how a resident had “died every day” during March, with the last death on 4 May, but that while residents were tested, staff had not been screened for coronavirus despite being potential carriers.

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Support worker Andy Sturgeon said: “I can’t see how a virus like this can go from one end of the home to the other end when both of these people are in their beds.

“The only reason I can think of is us we’re the carriers. As soon as there was a confirmed case we should all have been tested to minimise the spread.” Asked if he had been tested, he replied “no”.

Care home nurse Shona Zellama said: “When someone’s health declines, usually we have a care plan ... but all we could do was prepare these people to pass.”

Asked if she could be certain staff and residents did not have coronavirus, she said: “No, all I can do is look for the symptoms. We all cry all the time, this should be a happy place, but we need to be careful because we don’t want corona to be back here.”

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Describing the report as “harrowing”, 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.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “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.

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

Scottish Labour leader Richard 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.

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.

Gabe Docherty, director of public health and health policy at NHS Lanarkshire, said: “On the basis of a report on 12 March of residents of Highgate Care Home with symptoms that may have been due to Covid-19, an outbreak was declared by the NHS Lanarkshire health protection team and an incident management team meeting held on 12 March.

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“Testing of residents was undertaken to confirm the cause of the outbreak and several were found to have Covid-19 infection. Most of the members of staff who have developed symptoms which may have been due to Covid-19 infection developed symptoms during March when testing of care home workers was not available. At that time the limited testing capacity available was prioritised for patients admitted to hospital and care home residents.

“Subsequently, when testing for care home workers became available, five care home workers were tested. Another five care home workers who developed symptoms were unable to travel to the testing centre at Glasgow Airport and they were not tested and self-isolated until at least seven days after the onset of their symptoms and until their symptoms had resolved.

“The health protection team is in daily contact with all care homes which have outbreaks until the outbreak has resolved and been formally declared over. Care homes then carry out a deep clean and are able to reopen with routine infection prevention and control measures in place and routine monitoring.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said last night: “We are supporting the social care sector in every way we can and have expanded testing in care homes and are ensuring that any care home with an urgent need for PPE can receive it from our national stockpile.

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“All residents and staff are being offered testing, whether they are symptomatic or not, in homes where there has been a confirmed case.”

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