Nicola Sturgeon has said that the human consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are “embedded in my soul”.
The First Minister acknowledged the impact of the virus as she was pressed over her government’s decision to discharge patients from hospitals to care homes in the early stages of the pandemic.
It comes after the High Court in England ruled that the UK Government acted unlawfully by discharging untested patients into care homes as it failed to account for the risk of asymptomatic transmission.
At First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood on Thursday, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar pressed Sturgeon on decisions taken by her and ministers.
And he raised the words of families in Scotland impacted who described it as ‘shameful’ and ‘unforgivable’.
“Yesterday, a judge at the High Court, England, ruled the policy of discharging positive and untested Covid patients into care homes was unlawful, unreasonable and irrational,” Sarwar told MSPs.
“It was described as one of the most devastating policy failures in the modern era that cost lives.
“Does the First Minister accept that her decision to send untested and positive patients into care homes in Scotland was unlawful, unreasonable, irrational and cost lives?”
The First Minister insisted that the priority has been to “save lives at all points” and to take decisions based on the best scientific and clinical evidence available.
She responded: “No, I don’t accept that, although these are matters now rightly and properly that will be scrutinised by the public inquiry that is under way in Scotland, and of course the parallel public inquiry that will take place into these matters UK-wide.
“And of course, these are matters that will be rightly and properly scrutinised should any legal cases be brought in Scotland.
“I think the most important thing I want to say today is that my thoughts are with every single family who has lost a loved one during the course of the pandemic, in care homes and indeed, across wider society.
“We’re obviously aware of the ruling at the High Court yesterday regarding decisions made by the UK secretary of state for England (Matt Hancock).
“The priority of all of us during this pandemic has been to save lives at all points and we have sought to take the best decisions based on the best scientific and clinical evidence that we had at any given time.”
The First Minister acknowledged that it is “right and proper” that the actions of the Scottish Government taken during the pandemic are fully scrutinised by an independent public inquiry.
She continued: “All nations developed guidance based on what we understood at the time.
“The guidance in Scotland is broadly similar to the guidance that was in place in England, but not identical, there were some differences in the versions of the guidance.
“One of the things that our guidance emphasised from March 13 and March 26, 2020, was that residents should remain in their rooms so far as possible, and routine visiting should be suspended.
“We also required isolation from March 26 of anyone discharged to a care home who had been in contact with Covid cases, even if they were not displaying symptoms.”
The First Minister added: “It is right and proper that these matters are fully scrutinised by the public inquiry.
“The last thing I would say, and I’ve said it before, there is nothing anybody in this chamber will say to me that makes me feel the weight of these decisions any heavier than I already do, and will do for every day of the rest of my life.
“I took all of these decisions, as did my ministers, as did the Government, in good faith, based on the best information we had at the time.”
Sarwar set out a timescale for the advice being made available in the early months of the pandemic.
He said: “I’m sorry, but that last part is fine in words, but actually an extraordinary and unthinkable answer that we don’t accept the judgment, particularly when the almost identical thing happened in Scotland.
“And let’s look at what the judgement makes clear – ‘irrational, unreasonable, unlawful, given what governments knew’.
“So let’s look at what happened in Scotland. As early as February 4, this government’s advisers were suggesting that asymptomatic transmission was a possibility.
“On February 13, this government’s advisers were saying that asymptomatic transmission was likely.
“On March 13, despite warnings from care home staff, this government’s guidance said, ‘do not hinder discharge from hospitals’.
“On March 26, this government’s guidance said, ‘individuals being discharged from hospital do not routinely need confirmation of a negative Covid test’.
“As late as April 17, this government’s health secretary (Jeane Freeman) was saying there was still not a strong case to test patients before discharge.
“Even though testing guidelines had changed in England on April 15.
“And by the time the Government changed their guidance and guidelines on April 21, nearly 3000 untested people and 75 known positive cases had already been transferred into Scotland’s care homes.
“Does the First Minister accept, in the words of the families affected and impacted, that this was a shameful, unforgivable, criminal act that cost lives in Scotland?”
Sturgeon explained her government is looking “very closely” at the judgement in England.
She said: “My thoughts will be with bereaved families every single day of the rest of my life.
“This is not about not accepting a judgment. The Scottish Government will look very closely at the terms of the judgment yesterday, we’ve already started that process.
“But this was not a case about the situation in Scotland, and therefore this is just a statement of fact, it is not a judgment about the situation in Scotland.
“So it’s not about not accepting that judgment, it’s about recognising that very important fact.”
Sarwar also gave figures detailing the impact of the pandemic in its early stages.
In the first wave of the pandemic, he said, 4073 died with Covid in Scotland, with 1900 of them in care homes.
He concluded: “By the time the government acted, half of all care homes in Scotland had a Covid outbreak.
“First Minister, families have been through the heartbreak of losing a loved one, many of them couldn’t be there at the final moments.”
The First Minister told MSPs: “I don’t have to be reminded of the numbers and the consequences of this pandemic.
“These facts and figures, and the human consequences, are embedded in my soul and will always be.
“That does not mean my decisions and my actions, and those of my government, should in any way not be subject to scrutiny.
“They should be subject to full, independent scrutiny and that is exactly what the independent public inquiry is going to do, that’s what families deserve.”