Jeane Freeman has pledged to review Scotland’s care home sector after it emerged police are investigating the Covid-19 deaths of three female residents of Skye’s Home Farm care home.
The Health Secretary said the pandemic had “shone a light” on where improvements had to be made in the sector.
In total, 10 Home Farm residents with the virus have died and NHS Highland has stepped in to play a greater role in running the home, owned by HC-One.
Ms Freeman’s comments came at the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh where the Health Secretary also announced that the Scottish death toll of positive cases had risen by nine overnight.
The total of deaths from those who had tested positive now stands at 2,270. But Ms Freeman warned that was likely to be an under-estimate because deaths do not tend to be registered at the weekend.
Police Scotland said inquiries are ongoing
The briefing was held after a police statement said the deaths of Home Farm residents aged 84,86 and 88 were being investigated and “inquiries are continuing”.
Police became involved after Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC announced earlier this month that all deaths from coronavirus of care home residents and workers should be studied to establish whether further action should be taken.
Scotland’s prosecuting service, the Crown Office, has set up a special unit dedicated to investigating coronavirus deaths.
Ms Freeman was asked if the developments at the home in Portree should lead to a full scale review of the system.
The Health Secretary said there had to be “a look” at the way the care sector was run with its mix of homes run privately, by the local authority, independently as not-for-profit organisations or by charities.
“I think it is entirely right that we review that,” Ms Freeman said, adding that the public should be involved and funding examined.
Ms Freeman said she wanted to “ensure the best quality of care” for the elderly regardless of whether they were in care homes, hospitals or the community.
“I do believe that is something that we need to look to as we go forward,” she said. The Health Secretary added the pandemic had “shone a light on a number of areas where there had been improvements we want to hold on to and other areas where we might want to look for improvements in the future.”
A Crown Office spokesman said families of residents would be kept updated with any developments. He added: “The Crown’s reporting requirements in respect of Covid-related deaths allow for a multi-agency response, and for appropriate investigations to be made in light of the specific circumstances.
“It would not be appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation.”
A HC-One spokesman said: “We are committed to cooperating fully with any investigations into the coronavirus related deaths. This is an unprecedented situation and we are thankful for the support of our local staff team, the NHS and our Local Authority partners.
“We recognised that improvements were needed at Home Farm and therefore apologise to our residents, their families, and the local community.”
The Health Secretary was also challenged over last week’s revelations that 921 hospital patients were untested for Covid-19 when they were discharged into care homes in March.
The figure was far greater than previous suggestions by the Health Secretary that only around 300 elderly people had been dealt with in that way.
Ms Freeman admitted that with hindsight she might have acted differently. But she said the priority at the time was for increasing NHS capacity to cope with the surge of coronavirus patients that it was predicted would need hospital treatment.
Scientific advice in March suggested that 4% of the population would need to be hospitalised.
“If I had known everything I know now – had known then, then we may have made different decisions about whether or not every patient who was being discharged from hospital was a Covid patient was tested to ensure that they were negative,” Ms Freeman said. “What is the case is that they were discharged from hospital because they were clinically well.”
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