A RECKONING OVER CARE HOME DEATHS
Law chief demands prosecutors are handed details of virus fatalities – paving way for inquiry and potential legal action
THE death of every care home resident in Scotland who fell victim to coronavirus will be investigated by prosecutors.
A dedicated unit has been set up by the Crown Office, Lord Advocate James Wolffe, QC, confirmed yesterday.
The team will also examine the Covid-19 deaths of NHS and care home staff, emergency crews and public transport workers.
The unit will determine whether to hold fatal accident inquiries – and the possibility of criminal prosecutions was not ruled out.
Care home chiefs say any inquiries must also look at how national policy on personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing affected the death toll.
Last night, legal experts warned the Scottish Government could face a flood of civil cases from bereaved families – as relatives of victims welcomed the impending probes.
George Hillhouse is furious that his mother, Helen Smith, was never tested for the virus.
She died last month, age 74, at the Almond Court care home in Drumchapel, Glasgow.
Mr Hillhouse, 52, from Glasgow, said: ‘I had to sit in protective gear and watch my mother
die. I was all on my own with no support because of the restrictions. Then we could not have the funeral she would have wanted. The Scottish Government took these things away from us.’
The former nurse added: ‘I welcome anything that supports an investigation into care home deaths and allows people to potentially sue the Government. I think a lot of families will feel the same.’ It came on another dramatic day when: n Nicola Sturgeon pledged to publish a road map for easing lockdown following ‘sustained signs of hope’;
■ Figures showed more than 3,000 people have now died in Scotland with confirmed or suspected coronavirus, according to National Records of Scotland (NRS);
■ Care home owners demanded a huge rise in testing for staff and residents;
■ Fresh concerns were raised over Miss Sturgeon’s failure to disclose an outbreak following a Nike conference in February.
As well as the Crown Office, the police, Health and Safety Executive, Care Inspectorate and councils could be involved in investigations. At the start of March, the Lord Advocate ruled out fatal accident inquiries (FAIs) for Covid-19 deaths to avoid overwhelming the NHS.
He said they should be carried out only if there was a substantive reason for doing so, such as public anxiety.
But at Holyrood yesterday, he told MSPs that all care home resident deaths linked to the virus must now be reported to the Crown Office. He added: ‘Two categories of Covid-19 or presumed
‘Every death is an individual tragedy’
Covid-19 deaths meet [public anxiety] criterion... firstly, where the deceased may have contracted the virus in the course of their employment.
‘Secondly, all Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 deaths where the deceased was resident in a care home.’
The Lord Advocate said the investigation process would apply retrospectively to relevant deaths. He added: ‘Where there are lessons that we can as a society learn, we will learn those lessons, knowing as we do that every one of these deaths is an individual tragedy.’
Dr Donald Macaskill, chief executive of umbrella group Scottish Care, welcomed the move but called for inquiries to also look at how Government policy on PPE and testing affected the death toll.
He added: ‘We are eager to continue to give public assurance that the actions of care homes have been entirely in accordance with guidance issued at the time, and that all appropriate clinical intervention has been undertaken.’
Alistair Bonnington, former honorary professor of law at Glasgow University, said: ‘The Scottish Government could be in the firing line if they are found by the court to have a duty of care in law towards the deceased persons.
‘It would be difficult for them to deny they have a duty of care, because all these daft daily press briefings proceed on the basis the Government is in charge of the whole response to the outbreak.’
Mr Bonnington claimed legal cases could relate to the Nike conference which led to an outbreak – when details were not made public.
He said: ‘The knowledge of the defender is always relevant. If the Government concealed information about an early outbreak, the result would be a lack of awareness and a lack of preparation.’