Care home workers in Scotland will be repeatedly tested for Covid-19 after health secretary Jeane Freeman revealed a deadly wave of the virus was triggered “primarily” by the movements of staff.
The Scottish Government has faced pressure to introduce 100% testing for residents and employees following concerns about safety in a number of centres, including the Home Farm care home in Skye where 10 residents have now died.
Ms Freeman said all 53,000 care home staff in Scotland will be offered routine tests in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus following evidence from health officials that workers were the main vectors of the disease.
The health secretary said she would provide further details of the new scheme at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday but stressed tests would need to be carried out on a “repeating basis” for it to be effective.
Ms Freeman said: “The evidence I have relied on to make that decision is that the route for the virus into a care home primarily will be those who work in the care home because they will be the people going in and out most from the community.
“Visiting, with one or two exceptions, has been stopped in care homes and residents should be being looked after in their own rooms. There will be very little in-and-out traffic to a care home other than those who work there.”
Care homes have been at the centre of the coronavirus crisis in Scotland and have accounted for almost half of all deaths, with 1,434 residents dying to date and 41% of centres reporting a suspected case.
The Scottish and UK governments have faced criticism over their handling of the virus in care settings and ministers in Scotland were accused by the GMB Union on Monday of “fiddling while the care home sector burns”.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on Friday every care home staff member and resident in England will be tested in the coming weeks.
Ms Freeman said that while staff will be tested for Covid-19 in Scotland residents would generally not be, as many are less mobile and the process of taking mouth and nasal swabs could be “distressing” for some.
Carers working in community settings – such as those visiting clients in their own home – will also not be routinely tested under the Scottish Government’s new measures.
Speaking at the Scottish Government’s daily briefing on Monday, Ms Freeman said it “makes sense” to regularly test staff, even in care homes that do not have a suspected case, so they can stay off work and isolate if necessary.
She said steps would be taken at that point “to ensure that residents were then tested, provided they consented to that”.
However, Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw insisted the measures fell “well short of the comprehensive action needed to protect care workers and those they care for”.
“Given the scale of the challenges being faced in our care sector and the tragic loss of life in care homes and among care workers, nothing less than a 100% testing policy, extending to all staff and residents, should be acceptable,” he said.
Mr Carlaw said many people would wonder how many lives could have been saved if a “more comprehensive” testing regime had been in place weeks go and it is “critical” the full test coverage “so obviously needed” is now immediately implemented.
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon has called for a dedicated fund to support care workers forced to go off sick, which she said was a “vital foundation” for the success of any test, trace and isolate strategy.
“Care homes have not been properly protected but there is no point in arguing about that now,” Ms Lennon said.
“Instead we must quickly learn from past mistakes and make sure we make much-needed improvements to protect residents and staff.”
Also speaking at the briefing on Monday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced 2,105 patients in Scotland had died after testing positive for Covid-19, while the number of confirmed cases rose to 14,594.
Ms Sturgeon said she would make sure issues around reporting and transparency were taken forward following an announcement on Sunday that health boards and local authorities will undertake daily reviews of care home performance.
HC One, the care home provider at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak on Skye, has confirmed a total of 207 residents have died within its Scottish facilities – but other operators have been less forthcoming.
Barchester Healthcare, which runs the Kirkburn Court care home in Peterhead, said multiple residents have died from Covid-19 at the facility but has refused to say how many.
The first minister was asked what steps the Scottish Government can take to ensure providers are as transparent as possible with local communities.
Ms Sturgeon pledged to provide more detail following a review of the issue on Monday afternoon.
She said: “Care home deaths are reported through the National Records of Scotland figures that are published every week and the next report is due on Wednesday. That gives the total number of deaths in care homes.”