Scotland’s top prosecutor is being urged to consider whether the Scottish Government’s handling of care homes during the coronavirus crisis breached public health legislation.
The Scottish Conservatives have written to Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, saying ministers’ actions have had “harrowing and devastating consequences for the residential care home sector”.
The party claims the decision in March to move elderly patients from hospitals into care homes could breach the Public Health Act 2008, which sets out a duty on Government to “protect the community” from infectious disease.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs said “answers on this matter are urgently required”.
Scottish Government figures show more than 900 elderly patients were discharged from hospital into care homes in March – before a requirement for them to be tested for Covid-19 was introduced.
National Records of Scotland data has revealed that between March 16 and July 19, there were 2,365 (54%) more deaths in Scotland’s care homes than average – with Covid-19 the underlying cause in 1,873 (79%) of these excess deaths.
BBC Scotland’s Disclosure programme this week found watchdogs were warned about staff shortages at care homes on 179 occasions between April 3 and June 17.
Freedom of information requests by the programme revealed 30 red warnings were sent to the Care Inspectorate between these dates, indicating an insufficient number of staff to properly meet residents’ needs.
Care homes also issued 149 amber warnings over this period, indicating resources were stretched and staffing levels were close to affecting the quality of care.
Mr Briggs said: “The SNP Government failed the residents, staff and families of our care homes.
“The decisions and guidance issued from the SNP Government had real and terrible consequences.
“Families across Scotland are now seeking answers as to what happened to their loved ones and what has gone so wrong in Scotland – that is why I have referred this to the Lord Advocate.
“It is vital that Nicola Sturgeon and SNP ministers are held accountable for these mistakes and for them to ultimately take responsibility.”
The First Minister, speaking at her coronavirus briefing, said no decision about care homes had been taken lightly, adding: “They were all taken at the time with the best of intentions to try to protect people in care homes.
“The weight of what has happened in care homes, and the implications of that, certainly weight very heavily on me and always will.
“I will always try to make sure the Government learns lessons and adapts its approach, if we need to. We have done that in many respects.”
She also noted: “Many of the things we did in care homes were in line with the actions the UK Government took in England, because we were worried about Covid in hospitals, both in terms of the capacity in hospitals and also not exposing older people in hospitals to Covid when they were medically fit for discharge, trying to get them into other places.”
A spokesman for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said: “We can confirm that the Crown Office have received correspondence from Miles Briggs MSP and a response will be issued in due course.”