By Bill Heaney

Families waiting to visit their elderly relatives in care homes are going to have to wait before First Minister NIcola Sturgeon is prepared to give the green light to them throwing open their doors to let them in.

She was challenged in the Scottish Parliament to put a date on it by LibDem leader Willie Rennie who accused the FM of being “silent on care home visiting … even though she indicated, when we discussed it in the chamber last week, that it could be allowed soon.”

Mr Rennie added: “Conditions are increasingly safe. Almost all residents were vaccinated weeks ago, and the vaccine has been found to be as effective in real life as it was in clinical trials.

“In her statement [on Wednesday], the First Minister highlighted the reducing impact of the virus on care homes.

“The toll of separation on families and their loved ones is heavy, and it grows every single day. When will families be allowed to get together? When will care home visiting start?”

Nicola Sturgeon told him: “As I have said before, that is of the utmost importance. Willie Rennie said that conditions are increasingly safe.  That is a lot more glib than I would ever be—certainly on the basis of the advice that I have access to.

“We cannot afford to make assumptions about the safety of the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable settings. We think that, with vaccination and other mitigations, they can be a lot safer, but we still need to be cautious.

In my statement—I will go into more detail about this when we publish the strategic framework next week—I said that we will set out the order of priority for reopening, with education the top priority.

“I cannot remember the exact phrase that I used, but I talked about increased family contact as the next priority. Care home visiting is very much part of that.

“The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport [Jeane Freeman] is working on revised guidance right now. I think that she has a meeting with providers of care homes this week—she is telling me that it is some time tomorrow—in order to try to finalise that guidance.

“I hope that I will be able to say more about that next Tuesday, if not before then, and that we will have greater normality back, but we must continue to be cautious.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “The toll that the virus has taken on our care homes is significant and it will be subject to scrutiny—rightly and properly—for some time to come.

“We think that we have substantially reduced the toll during the second wave, and vaccination is helping us to do more of that, but we cannot throw caution to the wind when we are dealing with the people in our society who are the most vulnerable to the virus.”

Shona Robison MSP said: “We all want to see a safe return to nurseries and schools, and we understand the importance of that for education and overall well-being. 

“Various studies have shown that the learning of those who come from more deprived communities has suffered disproportionately as a result of Covid-19.

“Will she say a bit more about what actions the Government is taking to ensure that those vulnerable groups receive the extra support that they need and deserve?”

The First Minister said: “That is one the most important questions in the whole of the situation that we are grappling with right now.

“As we did prior to the pandemic, we are targeting additional support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we have said previously, we have supplied devices to support digital learning at home, and provided support for home-school link workers to maintain regular contact with children.

“We have also supported the delivery of summer learning and support programmes, including family support workers, provision of food, and additional learning materials.

“We are also investing, and have invested during the past few years, in the Scottish attainment challenge, which includes money that councils have been able to use to deal with the poverty-related impacts of Covid.

“Those are important issues that will not go away as we start to come out of the Covid situation. They will require attention and investment for some time to come.”

Top picture: Crosslet House Care Home in Dumbarton where visitors have been locked out for nearly a year.

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