VIRUS: LABOUR LEADER TACKLES STURGEON ON TESTING FIGURES

FM Nicola Sturgeon and Labour leader Richard Leonard.
By Bill Heaney
Labour leader Richard Leonard expressed concern over the fact that the number of Covid-19 cases in Scottish care homes continues to rise.
He told First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that while he welcomed the reduction in the number of new cases and of deaths, the total number of care homes reporting Covid-19 cases continues to rise – “which is why the issue remains an urgent priority”.

Mr Leonard said that he welcomed too the Government’s acceptance this week of the need to regularly test staff in Scotland’s care homes. Labour had been pressing for this since the beginning of the crisis.

He added: “On 6 May, I once again asked the First Minister if she would commit to testing everyone in Scotland’s care homes and I pointed out that, if we applied all Scotland’s unused Covid-19 testing capacity, we could, in less than two weeks, test every one of the 85,000 people who work and live in our care homes.

“Today is exactly two weeks on from that, so can the First Minister tell us whether those people have all been tested? If not, how many care workers and residents have been tested?”

The FM replied: “We will try to give the precise numbers when we can do so, but that testing is happening progressively and there is a prioritisation of care homes that have active cases. We are of course expanding testing of staff to include care homes where there are no active cases and regardless of whether staff have symptoms. We have expanded testing as we have built our testing capacity, although we are also building that capacity with a view to the test, trace, isolate programme.

“The expansion of testing is also driven by clinical advice. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport’s [Jeane Freeman] recent announcement on testing staff in care homes where there are no active cases and regardless of symptoms was driven by the clinical view that that is one thing that can be done to stop infection getting into care homes.

“In that regard, there are two things that we have to bear in mind and that clinicians who advise us tell us to bear in mind. The first is that, particularly with frail older people, the test is sometimes invasive and can be uncomfortable, so there must be sound and considered reasons for giving it to residents.

“The second is that, although testing is important, it can give false reassurance, so it is important, particularly in institutional settings such as care homes, that we do not lose sight of basic infection prevention and control procedures, which are the fundamental steps that care home providers have to take to ensure the safety of their residents as best they can. We need testing to be part of those steps, but we always have to caution—given the relative lack of reliability of tests of people who do not have symptoms—against putting all our focus on it, because it risks false assurance.

“My last point about staff in care homes and the health secretary’s announcement is that it is important that the testing is not a one-off. I believe—although I will be corrected if I am wrong—that, in other parts of the United Kingdom, the commitment to test all residents is for a one-off test. For the staff who we will now test, that will be done on an on-going basis; we will work to do that every seven days to give an on-going assurance. I think that that is a really important part of the health secretary’s announcement.”

However, Richard Leonard replied: “Testing should not be all of our focus, but it is necessary if we are to defeat this virus. How we value a workforce is a measure of how we value a service, which is why we have been calling for testing. However, we still have no details of how, for example, death-in-service payments, to which national health service workers are rightly entitled, will be extended to those who work in social care services.

 

“We know that many care workers are on insecure contracts, many are low paid and many who are ill or need to self-isolate will receive only statutory sick pay, which is £95.85 a week. Gary Smith of the GMB said this week: “the Scottish Government should end the scandal of … workers … who test positive … left in poverty if they’re off work as a result of testing positive.”

We need to be on their side—on the side of those key workers—and so on the side of the vulnerable people whom they take care of.

“This afternoon, will the Scottish Government back our proposals to support Scotland’s care workers who suffer financial loss because of Covid-19, so that we can safeguard livelihoods and also save lives?”

The First Minister said she was delighted to be able to confirm that.

She added: “We are on the side of social care workers. I have said repeatedly—I will say it again, because the point is important—that we are all part of a collective effort to defeat this virus. That is true in the social care sector, as it is true in the NHS and in wider society.

“This is not about trying to say that something is one person’s responsibility and not another’s—we are working together.

“However, the social care sector is different from the NHS in that the Scottish Government, via the health boards, is the employer of NHS staff, but we are not the employer of social care staff.

“Therefore, without pointing the finger at anybody or trying to pass the buck, I think that it is really important that we work with employers to make sure that employers are doing the right thing and fulfilling their duties to the staff who work for them.

“We covered death in service last week, and I said that it was our absolute intention to make sure that the same benefits apply to people in social care as apply to people in the NHS.

“The health secretary has contacted Scottish Care, which has confirmed that it is putting together a proposal with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I think that the health secretary will be discussing that proposal, which we have not seen yet, with them on Friday this week. If there is a role that the Scottish Government can play to facilitate that, we will do so.

“There is a really important point here: employers have a duty to make sure that their staff are properly catered for at all times, particularly at this time of crisis. As we have done in every aspect of dealing with this, the Scottish Government will play our full part in that.

“Jeane Freeman said a few days ago, and it is worth repeating, that no member of staff should feel that they cannot come forward to get tested in case they test positive and then have to lose a significant part of their income.

“Those are all things that we are working with employers to try to resolve but, recognising the duty of employers and the exceptional circumstances that we are in, we are prepared for the Scottish Government to do more than we might otherwise do when we are dealing with the responsibilities of employers. All those things will continue to be taken forward responsibly by us in collaboration with others who have a part to play.”

 

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