Jeane Freeman has been accused of “covering up” government mistakes until she is ready to retire after admitting that moving patients from hospitals into care homes during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic was wrong.
Scotland’s outgoing health secretary said the Scottish Government had failed in “understanding the social care sector well enough”, adding that officials “didn’t take the right precautions” when older people were leaving hospitals.
Political opponents hit out at the retiring MSP and former nurse’s comments, made in an interview on the BBC’s Politically Thinking podcast on Thursday – the day the coronavirus death toll in Scotland passed 10,000.
Ms Freeman told host Nick Robinson: “I think our failures were not understanding the social care sector well enough, so we didn’t respond quickly enough to what was needed in our care homes but also in social care in the community.
“We wanted people who didn’t need to stay in hospital any longer – because they’d been treated and were clinically well – to be discharged as quickly as possible so we freed up those beds for Covid patients.
“Remember the early predictions about the number of people going into hospital were terrifying actually.
“But we didn’t take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital, going into care homes, were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake.
“I might argue we couldn’t do anything other than we did and all of the rest of it but it still created a real problem for those older people and for others who lived in care homes – and staff who worked in care homes.”
Why is Jeane Freeman only willing to admit such a huge mistake was made now?
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross
More than 1,300 elderly people were discharged from hospitals to care homes at the start of the outbreak last year, before a testing regime was in place, and Scotland had the highest rate of care home deaths involving Covid-19 infected residents in the UK.
The drive to free up hospital beds for fresh coronavirus cases has been blamed for seeding the virus in care homes round a third of the 10,000 deaths known or suspected to have involved coronavirus have been in the facilities.
Ms Freeman, who is retiring as an MSP in four weeks time with a £44,347 golden goodbye, was accused by opposition parties of trying to hide failures from the public, with some questioning the timing of the admission.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “For almost a year, grieving families have been left without answers about what happened to their loved ones.
“It’s a disgrace that the SNP covered up their mistake for so long. Their report on care home deaths was delayed and when it was finally published, they tried to spin it.
“The transfer of Covid-positive patients didn’t just cause a ‘real problem’, as Jeane Freeman states, it cost many vulnerable people their lives.
“We now know why the SNP refused to launch an immediate public inquiry as Parliament demanded. They made a grave error and instead of fronting it up, they tried to hide it from the public.
“People will be left wondering – why is Jeane Freeman only willing to admit such a huge mistake was made now?”
No comfort for families
Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “These admissions will offer no comfort to the families of those who needlessly lost loved ones due to the Scottish Government’s errors.
“Labour called for a national care service a decade ago, at the time when c.diff caused preventable deaths across Scotland’s care sector.
“Nicola Sturgeon, the then health minister, refused. Lessons that could have been learned were ignored. The time for reflection was when it could have saved lives, not now on podcasts.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “This is the closest Scottish Government ministers have come yet to admitting that their decisions in the early stages of the pandemic had tragic consequences.
“The situation in care homes was an unimaginably sad one. My sympathies are with all the families who lost loved ones and those who could not be by their relative’s side at the very end.
“I hope that the ongoing inquiry into care home deaths will provide some answers for families and a degree of closure for those affected by this horrific sequence of events.”
An SNP spokesman said: “The Scottish Government commissioned extensive work to review the links between hospital discharges and the impact of Covid in our care homes and we have acknowledged that mistakes were made.
“The first minister has committed to establishing a public inquiry into the handling of Covid, in which the voices of families would be heard, by the end of the year and we hope other governments across the UK will come together to support such an inquiry on a four-nations basis.”