Ruth Davidson and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon went at it hammer and tongs.
By Bill Heaney
The scandal of deaths in Scotland’s care homes is refusing to go away for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
It has become increasingly clear that moving virus-infected patients out of hospitals into care homes, where other residents contracted the disease and many died, is a matter of the utmost seriousness.
And that initial denials this happened were either an attempt at cover-up or a refusal to accept the truth of what was happening.
The stand-in Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears determined not to let Ms Sturgeon off the hook, despite the FM’s lengthy and confusing interpretation of an official report on the matter.
She asked the FM: “Does the First Minister really think that the delay, the spin and the sleight of hand surrounding the report serves those grieving families well?”
Ms Davidson accused Ms Sturgeon, who pledged at the outset of the pandemic that Covid-19 would not be allowed to become “political”, of doing very much just that.
She told MSPs: “It is clear that we are now in the grip of a second wave. However, today, I want to talk about the first wave and the devastating Public Health Scotland report into care home Covid deaths.
“Yesterday, the First Minister said, ‘I’m … not trying just to pick on specific lines’, but she had already selectively picked her line from the report. She quoted: ‘Overall, the analysis does not find statistical evidence that hospital discharges were associated with care home outbreaks.
” ‘Of course, the First Minister chose not to read the next line, which said that there was a relatively wide variation in the estimated levels of risk. Can the First Minister now tell us how high might the true risk have been of putting known Covid-positive patients into care homes?”
Nicola Sturgeon said: “I begin by recognising again the toll that Covid has taken on people in care homes. The fact that that is not unique to Scotland does not in any way detract from the distress and grief that have been caused. Today, I say again that I am deeply sorry for that.
“The position on testing changed in line with evidence and advice. That was true in Scotland, and it was true in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, the absence of testing did not equate to an absence of action.
“Guidance was in place all along that was designed to minimise the risks in care homes. We continue to learn lessons, we continue to apply those lessons and we continue to take with the utmost seriousness the duty on Government to do everything possible to protect the general population and particularly those who are most vulnerable.
“This is for others to judge, but I do not know that the people who were watching all the hour or more that I spent answering questions on the topic yesterday would have concluded that I tried to hide any aspect of this.
“This is a difficult situation for families and for the public generally. I quoted the conclusion of the report. The report has hard messages for us. It tells us some of what we think are factors driving outbreaks in care homes, but there is still work to do to understand that.
Of course, we have the information that the report gives us because we commissioned the report. Similar things have happened in other countries where they still do not have that level of information. I am determined that we continue to learn and apply lessons and do everything that we can to keep people in our care homes and the general public as safe as we can.”
But Ms Davidson was not content with that answer. She said: “I thank the First Minister for that answer, but it did not address the specific question that I put to her. I asked her what the increased risk was.
“When someone tested positive for Covid before being transferred to a care home, the report said that the best estimate was that there was a 45 per cent increase in the risk of an outbreak. However, because of the wide variation that I quoted, the risk could have been much higher—in fact, the report says that it could have been as high as 374 per cent.
“That would have meant a 374 per cent increase in the risk of seeing Covid rip through a care home. That is exactly why we need a public inquiry to start now, as there is still so much that we do not know.
“What we do know is that only 13.5 per cent of care homes that were never sent any patients ended up having an outbreak. That figure jumped to 38 per cent when a home had one or more patients placed in its care. However, we still do not know how high the number went when a care home had a known Covid-positive patient sent to it. That is pretty basic stuff. Why was that number left out of the report?”
The FM replied: “I do not think that the report is the last word on these issues—I have never thought that. There is much more work to be done to understand the issues that were factors in outbreaks in care homes. The report tells us about some of those, but it does not tell us about them all.
“Although the report said that, in all the different scenarios—whether someone tested positive or negative or was not tested at all—there was not statistical evidence that hospital discharges were associated with outbreaks.
It added that “the risk of an outbreak associated with care home size is much larger than any plausible risk from hospital discharge”.
Other factors were involved and would be dealt with by Jeane Freeman, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, at FMQs this Thursday “when she sets out details of our winter planning for social care.
“I take all such issues extremely seriously. As I have done before, I give a commitment that, as many other countries have also done, there will be a full public inquiry that will consider the issues involving care homes.”
When Ms Sturgeon attempted to pray in aid comments made by Professor June Andrews, who when she was asked about the timing of a public inquiry, she was shouted down.
She added: “There is no doubt that there will be a public inquiry. However, at the moment we will continue—[Interruption.] For the avoidance of doubt, I say that Professor June Andrews will also have said things that were critical of the Government.
“I am not trying to depart from that at all. There will be a full public inquiry when the time for that is right, once we have got the country through the next stage of the Covid pandemic.
“However, as we have done all along, as we go forward we will continue to learn and to apply lessons in care homes.”
Ruth Davidson persisted: “I am not sure that the best defence against selective quoting is to quote selectively what Professor June Andrews said on the radio this morning—it was devastating to the Government.
“The calculation appears to have been that publishing the report would ensure that any pressure to speed up or bring forward the holding of a public inquiry would ease.
“I believe that the opposite is the case, because of the way in which the publication of the report was handled.
“It was delayed by a month, it was given to ministers privately on Monday and it was released to the media only 15 minutes before they were due to ask questions, with a press release that did not even to bother to mention known Covid-positive patients being sent to care homes in the first place.
“The very last people of all to have sight of the report were the families and loved ones of those who died. We already know that a crucial line in Public Health Scotland’s briefing to journalists, which the First Minister has just mentioned—that it was ‘likely that hospital discharges were the source of introduction of infection in a small number of cases’ – was missing from the final report.
“Does the First Minister really think that the delay, the spin and the sleight of hand surrounding the report serves those grieving families well?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “I do not expect grieving families to be assured or to have all their concerns satisfied by any report and I do not think that this report is the only or the final word. The report was commissioned by the Scottish Government; I will say again that we are the only Government in the UK so far to commission a report of this depth and I think that Wales is the only other Government that has done anything to look at this issue but, as I understand it, that was a report that was based on statistical modelling, not on data. That is an important point.
“I expected the report to say something different from what it did on hospital discharges. However, the fact of the matter is that a public inquiry is necessary and, until that point, it is also necessary that we continue to deepen our understanding and take the actions that are necessary, just as we did back in April, when, in light of changing advice and evidence, we moved to testing of discharges to care homes, and just as we later moved to routinely test all workers in care homes. Last week, we announced plans to extend that to designated visitors and other routine visitors to care homes.
“We are learning and we are applying that learning on an on-going basis. There are no words that I will ever find to convey the depth of my regret at what happened in care homes. I take possibly more seriously than I take anything else, including any other aspect of our handling of the pandemic, the need to ensure that we learn lessons where we got things wrong and do not shy away from that, but more than anything, that we take all possible steps to keep those in our care homes safe.
“There is an intense focus on the part not just of Government but of partners across the country on ensuring that care homes are as safe as they can be, and we will continue to keep 100 per cent focused on that each and every day.