Freeman and Sturgeon should ‘fess up, be honest with us and move on

Freeman and Sturgeon should ‘fess up, be honest with us and move on

by Robert Kilgour
article from Thursday 25, June, 2020

AT LAST, we are now seeing some signs of hope in the battle against Coronavirus.

At Renaissance Care, since our first resident tested positive for the disease on 3rd April, we have tragically lost 48 well-loved residents following a positive test. Thanks to the amazing dedication of our hardworking staff, we’ve also had 91 residents recover from this awful virus. 

It’s been a rollercoaster 73 days in which, tragically, many families have lost elderly loved ones to Covid-19, but as of this Monday (15 June) we were finally able to say we are free of cases across all 15 of our care homes.

That gives us a chance to pause and take stock and as we begin to leave lockdown, it is increasingly clear that Scotland’s social care sector has been let down badly during the crisis.

By the start of this week there had been 6,344 cumulative cases of suspected Covid-19 in care homes across Scotland and only roughly a third have managed to keep the disease out altogether.

Throughout this tumultuous period, carers across Scotland have been exceptionally hard-pressed, not just by the intense workloads wrought by the crisis, but by the number of colleagues – totalling more than five percent of the workforce last week – kept off work by the Coronavirus.

Behind each and every one of these statistics are individual stories of heroic carers battling bravely against overwhelming odds to protect vulnerable older people. Long-established infection control measures swung into action and care staff pulled together to keep residents, many of whom they regard as ‘second families’ safe and well. However all too often they faced a losing battle from the start and slowly we’re getting a fuller picture of why that was. 

Sadly, we now know there were 921 hospital discharges of vulnerable elderly people directly into Scottish care homes in March and a further 510 in April before guidance was changed by the Scottish Government – nearly a week after this happened in England.

Evidence is emerging about deep confusion within the Scottish Government over who knew what and when about the capacity of Covid-19 carriers with no active symptoms to spread the disease.  At Renaissance Care, for example, when finally given access to limited mass testing last month, seven percent of our staff with no symptoms tested positive. The fact is, in spite of the clear evidence that this was a big risk, Scotland’s testing capacity was too far behind what was needed and still seems to be somewhat short of what our staff really need and deserve. Its delivery is still too much of a 'Postcode Lottery'.

We, as providers, could only act on the information from these tests when we knew the facts. But it seemed that the powers that be didn’t want to know in case it called into question earlier assumptions about the appropriateness of Scottish Government guidance. Instead of admitting mistakes, an attempt was made to paint a picture of dysfunctional independent providers but that just didn’t make sense either.

The Scottish Government’s own figures show lower rates of infection among residents in independent sector care homes than in local authority-run homes for most of April and in May they were almost the same. The virus didn’t care who owned a care home so it is far from obvious why, rather than giving providers financial support or more testing, the government focussed on giving itself new powers to nationalise struggling care homes at potentially huge taxpayer expense.

So, why can’t the First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health simply acknowledge these clear missteps and move on?  Why can’t they be up front with the people of Scotland and admit that, rather than being “guided by the science” all the time, part of the reason that 63 per cent of care homes have grappled with infection is because they were really guided by a shortage of available testing resources rather than the science?

I have great sympathy and respect for the First Minister and genuinely admire the way she has led the Scottish Government’s reaction to the Coronavirus with obvious compassion since the start of the pandemic. Overall, she has communicated well and that has been a crucial part of the very difficult job she has. However, a slick 'style over substance and truth' PR operation is getting in the way of the openness and transparency that the Scottish people deserve.

Rather than admit fallibility and tell us where mistakes were made, we get hazy regrets or worse still, misdirected blame and lazy comparisons with government or NHS performance in the rest of the UK. 

We have seen a siege mentality when it comes to real scrutiny and a stubborn reluctance to step back and reflect openly and clearly on the things that the Scottish Government has gotten wrong, which risks undermining our national response overall. On too many occasions, extracting really important pieces of data from the Scottish Government in a timely manner has been frustratingly challenging.

We have to prepare for the possibility of a second wave of infections that may affect care homes once again. In the meantime, carers, residents and their families need to come to terms with a ‘new normal’ of barrier controls that will not only be challenging and costly to implement, but will also affect the quality of life of residents unable to meet family and friends and restrict their ability to receive home comforts like flowers and gifts.

The circle of care that protects our care home residents and enhances their quality of life comes from both our staff and our residents’ friends and families – we simply must factor relatives back into our definition of what makes for ‘good care’.

The Scottish Government should, of course, lead on this, in full consultation with Scottish Care, which represents most independent sector care homes in Scotland. Working together, they must find safe and secure ways to facilitate a carefully-phased and implemented pathway for care homes which allows residents to have hope once again that they can be in the physical presence of their loved ones.

The Scottish Government has promised a full inquiry in due course on how the Coronavirus has affected social care and I welcome this, but we can’t wait months or years for answers to pressing practical problems. We need a period of honest reflection and openness from all stakeholders now. We need social care providers to be able to work in collaboration with Government and its agencies so we can establish how best to move forward. That means being open and transparent, both about past mistakes and the best ways to avoid future ones.

As Scotland slowly emerges from lockdown, I urge the First Minister to step up urgently and instigate a period of frank and open reflection on how Scotland has handled Coronavirus in the social care sector. By all means we must be positive and look to the future but we must also be rigorously honest about mistakes that have occurred. Or we risk them being made again.

Robert Kilgour founded Four Seasons Health Care in Fife in Scotland in 1988, opening its first care home in Kirkcaldy in May 1989 and leaving in early 2000 when the company was operating 101 care homes with around 6,500 staff UK wide before making his final financial exit from the company in 2004. He then founded Renaissance Care in 2004 and is currently Executive Chairman of that company, one of the leading Scottish care home operators, that runs 15 homes throughout the country looking after 700 vulnerable elderly residents - 70 per cent of whom are local authority clients – employing close to 1,100 staff.



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