Former health secretary Jeane Freeman has told the UK Covid Inquiry she will “regret for the rest of her life” care home deaths caused by Scottish Government decision-making.
Ms Freeman, who was the health secretary during the pandemic up to the 2021 Holyrood election, told the inquiry in Edinburgh that there were “no risk free choices” when considering whether to introduce social distancing measures into care homes.
Her tenure oversaw key decision such as discharging patients to care homes without testing them for coronavirus first.
She told the inquiry: “I want it read into the record. I was very concerned about our care sector, and regret very much and will do for the rest of my life, any deaths that occurred there because of action the Scottish Government didn’t, or did take, and could have done better.”
Counsel to the inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC, asked the former health secretary if it was correct to say there was a lack of urgency or prioritisation of the issues posed by the care sector.
She replied: “No, I don’t believe that is correct. Guidance had been issued on March 13 advising of social distancing, visiting restrictions and I had written (that) patients should be screened clinically to ensure they weren’t being transferred inappropriately.”
She also said she had “two-fold” concern on moving people into care homes, including the urge to ensure patients who were ready to leave hospital were not kept in any longer, leading to additional risks of diminished muscle capabilities, or contracting the virus in hospital.
“Against that was the risk of transferring people to care homes who had not been tested,” she said.
It lead to ministers introducing social distancing in care homes, prohibiting communal meetings between residents and restricting external visits.
Mr Dawson put it to Ms Freeman that guidance was not issued until March 13 2020, after former first minister Nicola Sturgeon received a message from a friend whose relative was in a care home.
Ms Freeman confirmed that was “correct” due to the “limited” information held on the sector.
She added: “None of this was a risk-free choice. I understood very well the distress that might be caused by asking for physical distancing and communal associations and ending external visits.
“I understood that. But I also believed that to allow that to continue was to increase the risk of transmission into and within the care home.”
Ms Freeman said the issue of discharging patients from hospital to a care home without being tested was a “complex issue”.
She said that while 348 care homes had outbreaks of Covid-19, “some care homes that received discharges did not have outbreaks”.
“I am not saying that the discharge from hospital without a test had no impact, what I am saying is that it was one of the factors,” she added.
But she went on to admit the Scottish Government response to Covid-19 in the adult care sector was “not as adequate as I would have wished it to be”.
She added: “I believe it was all that could be done with the resources available to us at that point, and that improved as time passed.”
Earlier, Ms Freeman told the inquiry that she had been unable to recover messages she had exchanged with Ms Sturgeon but insisted such correspondence was “short” and “operational”.
She went on to say that Government “decisions were not reached” through WhatsApp, adding it “never occurred” to her to delete messages.
Ms Freeman was also shown a notebook dated February 26 2020 appearing to belong to Scottish Government civil servant, Derek Grieve.
It stated that all departments within the UK Government were fully engaged in a way that the Scottish Government “simply isn’t”.
Jamie Dawson KC put it to Ms Freeman that there was a “general lack of awareness” regarding the increasing severity of the pandemic from the Scottish Government.
She said: “Certainly, if that is the case, then it is a contradistinction to the position of health ministers, the first minister or the deputy first minister, it is clear that Mr Grieve’s feeling or view, I think he was reasonably frustrated.
“The department appeared to be taking to him the view that this was a public health matter and not for them.”