They are still failing our most vulnerable elderly – and are STILL making excuses

POLITICS has always been about blame-shifting – and those who can do it best tend to be at the top of government.

When it involves the deaths of elderly people in care homes, this professional evasion is unedifying, even shameful.

Nearly 2,000 care home residents died from coronavirus earlier this year, a tragedy fuelled by the discharge of Covid-positive patients to residential care.

Thousands more weren’t tested, and that created the perfect conditions for the virus to circulate among the most vulnerable people in society.

Now we discover that under the current rules, the elderly can be shifted into homes from hospitals without having tested negative for coronavirus.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said it was ‘entirely right and proper’ for patients to be sent to homes without first being given the all-clear under clinical guidance.

Doctors have the power to decide on the discharge of a patient without a negative test result in ‘exceptional circumstances’ – so really she’s saying the buck stops not with her, but with the medics.

Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who rightly identifies human rights abuses of older people as the ‘scandal of our times’, highlighted a statement made by Miss Freeman on June 4.

Back then, she said that ‘no one should be discharged from hospital who has a positive test for Covid-19’, adding: ‘If they are in hospital and have tested positive for Covid-19, they should remain there and be treated for the virus.’

Yesterday Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith said Covid-positive patients can still be sent into care, but it wasn’t routinely done, and there would need to be a careful ‘risk assessment’.

So much for consistency – and yet we’re being asked to believe that moving the elderly to homes even when there’s no guarantee they don’t have Covid, and indeed in cases where they definitely do, is driven entirely by doctors.

Doubtless there was a rush to clear hospital beds back in March and April to make way for an expected influx of Covid patients that didn’t materialise.

But there was no political oversight, no policy, no direction from health board management?

Maybe there was, but it’s possible not much, if anything, was written down – and it’s possible that memos authorising these decisions, if they were produced, no longer exist – fed to a shredder, perhaps.

There was a report last month, published later than promised, which sought to get ministers off the hook by claiming that transferring Covid-positive patients into care wasn’t a pivotal factor in fatalities.

Nicola Sturgeon and her spin-doctors seized on that conclusion, preferring to ignore another disclosure, that homes where residents had been discharged from hospital were nearly three times more likely to be hit by a Covid-19 outbreak than those with no discharged patients.

Yesterday, in response to concern that lessons hadn’t been learned from the first wave of Covid, Miss Sturgeon said it would be wrong to ‘countermand’ the judgment of doctors.

Under pressure: Health Secretary Jeane Freeman

Indeed, she pointed out that she had ‘no clinical training’, though she was Health Secretary for five years, an era she may choose to forget – though in fairness she did a better job than Miss Freeman.

But let’s face it, the bar is low: the current holder of the most important portfolio in government is a veteran quangocrat and former card-carrying Communist with a long track record of failure.

She presided over a system that consigned hundreds of older people who were known to be highly susceptible to Covid to their deaths, many in the most distressing of circumstances.

In some cases, they would have been alone in their rooms for much of the time – dehydrated, frightened and alone.

The insult to their bereaved relatives is compounded by the fact that the practices which led to these many avoidable tragedies clearly haven’t changed.

It’s a sobering reflection of the dearth of talent on the SNP benches that, for now, Miss Freeman has been entrusted with stewardship of the embattled NHS – though she is standing down at the next election.

Before the pandemic, she was in charge when concerns were raised about contaminated tapwater at a Glasgow super-hospital, and the delayed opening of an Edinburgh children’s hospital.

Both of these controversies are to be subject to a major inquiry led by a former judge. – yet another official probe, and you’d be forgiven for losing count of just how many have been ordered under this government.

It might well maintain that it’s a sign of healthy governance that this inquest culture is so deeply embedded in public life, and there’s no doubt inquiries, if they’re fearlessly independent, have a crucial role to play. But it’s also proof of serial incompetence.

On care homes, the SNP insists that now isn’t a good time to have an inquiry into what went wrong, but when might be an appropriate moment – some time, presumably, after next year’s election, or maybe never?

The latter would be a beneficial outcome for the Sturgeon regime, now fire-fighting on multiple fronts, with the greatest threat posed by the Salmond inquiry at Holyrood.

The government’s unwillingness to cooperate fully with that process, refusing to hand over legal documents and barring civil servants from giving evidence, is a helpful indicator of how it might interact with a care homes inquiry.

Police and prosecutors are poring over details of Covid deaths in the care sector, and officers are looking into individual homes worst-hit by Covid where they may have been criminal negligence.

But they should make sure ministers and public health bosses are also held to account for their decision-making.

The second spike in Covid has taken hold in care homes, but as the death toll rises it’s clear that some were ill-equipped for a resurgence of the virus, which was widely forecast.

Many of the problems in the sector are systemic, including low-paid staff compelled to take on different part-time jobs, meaning they move frequently between different homes, spreading the virus.

In September, Professor Allyson Pollock, founder of the Centre for International Public Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Much more needs to be done in terms of getting the staffing levels right in care homes… especially those in domiciliary care, who are having to go in and out of lots of homes.

‘We’ve had seven months to get it right – this isn’t rocket science. All governments could have been doing a lot more.’

It’s also worth reflecting that Miss Freeman will be masterminding the logistically demanding Covid vaccination drive, an exercise that if correctly managed will save many lives, and break the economically ruinous cycle of lockdowns.

Given that the flu jab scheme was a disaster in some areas, on any remotely sane reckoning it would be an understatement to conclude that Miss Freeman is the wrong person for this key job.

Her only detectable skill is the re-direction of blame – in the case of care homes, she’s channelled it towards dedicated frontline medics.

In a crowded field of nonentities, no-hopers and blunderers, her litany of failures means Miss Freeman stands alone – ensuring her unenviable legacy as the living antithesis of a safe pair of hands.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 24, 2020.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper