Nicola Sturgeon has insisted her administration remains committed to “proper scrutiny and accountability”, after a government agency was criticised for trying to withhold care home death rates.
The first minister vowed to continue to “learn every possible lesson” from the pandemic amid a row over an attempt by National Records of Scotland (NRS) to block the publication of data on fatalities at individual facilities across the nation.
Opposition parties seized on a ruling by the Scottish Information Commissioner, which was made following a joint appeal by the DC Thomson newspaper titles, The Scotsman, The Herald and STV.
The commissioner concluded that the Scottish Government agency engaged in arguments that were “speculative in nature” in its attempts to block the publication of the statistics following a freedom of information request from the media organisations.
And it was found that disclosure of the data would be important to “ensure that older people and their relatives have the necessary information to make an informed decision when choosing a care home or care home provider”.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar described the episode as “utterly shameful”.
He added: “The SNP government breached legislation and kept the scale of care home deaths secret for eight months.
“This is another devastating blow for the care home residents and families who have been denied justice.
“Those responsible must be held accountable and lessons must be learned.
“We need a Scottish public inquiry without delay.”
There was blatantly an attempt to sweep the true scale of the scandal under the carpet.”
Scottish Conservatives’ Craig Hoy
Scottish Conservative social care spokesman Craig Hoy said: “This latest revelation will appal the thousands of families grieving the loss of a loved one who died in Scotland’s care homes.
“There was blatantly an attempt to sweep the true scale of the scandal under the carpet.
“It is truly shocking that an SNP government agency believed it was appropriate to try to stop the full picture surrounding care home deaths being made public.”
“The Scottish Conservatives have repeatedly called for an immediate public inquiry on care homes.
“This unlawful cover-up only makes the case for that urgent inquiry stronger.
“The SNP must investigate why this shocking act of secrecy happened and explain it before parliament as soon as possible.”
Asked about the issue at her coronavirus briefing on Friday, Ms Sturgeon insisted there had been “no masking of the scale” of the overall death numbers at care homes.
“National Records of Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government, which means that it operates in these kind of decisions independently of ministers,” she said.
“They have to make assessments of freedom of information requests and respond appropriately, or as they consider to be appropriate, but they also have to respond to decisions of the freedom of information commissioner, and I would expect that National Records of Scotland will do that.”
The first minister added: “There is an absolute determination on the part of me, everybody in the government, and I think all of us, to learn every possible lesson from what we’ve been through in the past 14 months, so that we can have proper scrutiny and accountability, but more fundamentally so that we can learn the right lessons.
That transparency and scrutiny is really important for all sorts of different reasons.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
“That’s why I want to see a public inquiry get under way as quickly as possibly, but it’s also why we will continue to learn the lessons as we go through the data, and that includes in care homes.
“And many of the lessons that have been painfully learned over the past year have led to a material change in the situation in care homes during the second wave of this virus, to that which pertained to the first.
“So that transparency and scrutiny is really important for all sorts of different reasons.”
An NRS spokesman has said: “Following review by the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) of a FOI request to release data on individual care homes, NRS will make this data available in line with the original FOI request and the timeframe set out by the SIC.”