Details of the number of deaths in individual care homes across Scotland from coronavirus were withheld by National Records of Scotland (NRS) in a move that the information watchdog said lacked “transparency”.
A collaborative project by STV News, The Herald, The Scotsman and DC Thomson had asked for the information as part of an effort to report the full scale of the pandemic on the care sector.
NRS, which has responsibility to officially record all deaths in Scotland, had been asked to release the number of confirmed and suspected Covid-19 related deaths in each of Scotland’s care homes but had refused for almost eight months.
The request, submitted under freedom of information legislation, was rejected on a number of grounds by NRS – a decision that has now been overturned in a ruling by the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC).
In the ruling, the Information Commissioner said submissions by NRS in support of withholding the data were “speculative in nature”.
The government body had argued that the information could be “highly misleading when presented out of context”. However, the watchdog didn’t accept that disclosure would lead to “any confusion or misinterpretation”.
NRS had supplied submissions from the Care Inspectorate, Scottish Care and the Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland.
Concerns raised included that the release of the data could “damage public confidence in the care home sector” and lead to financial difficulties for some providers. The arguments weren’t accepted by the Information Commissioner who ruled that NRS had “failed to comply” with the legislation.
Ordering the release of the data by 28 June, the Information Commissioner said there was a “strong public interest in disclosure to ensure older people and their relatives have the necessary information to make an informed decision when choosing a care home or care home provider”.
A National Records of Scotland spokesperson: said: “NRS continues to publish a range of information on Covid-related mortality, including where the location of death is a care home.
“Our statistical analysis provides valuable information on characteristics of the deceased as well as presentation at Health Board and Local Authority level.
“Following review by the Scottish Information Commissioner 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”.
The ruling by the SIC comes as legal concerns were raised earlier this week by a new report looking into patients being moved from hospitals to care homes in Scotland at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Mental Welfare Commission’s new report into decision-making for people in hospital who lack capacity has studied a sample of all discharges from hospitals to care homes from March to May 2020.
Public Health Scotland said last month it “cannot rule out” a link between hospital discharges and Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes, with nearly a third of those experiencing an outbreak.
The new report, Authority to discharge, studied the detail of 457 moves – around 10% of the number reported at the time by Public Health Scotland – and found 20 of those to have been unlawful.
Speaking at a Scottish Government coronavirus briefing on Friday, Nicola Sturgeon said: “The total number of people who sadly lost their lives to Covid-19 who were residents in care homes has been reported, so there is no masking of the scale of that.
“This was an issue about the publication of data that allowed that overall number to be broken down to individual care homes – that wouldn’t have changed the overall number.
“There is an absolute determination on the part of me, everybody in the Government and I think all of us to learn on 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’s why I want to see a public inquiry get up and running as quickly as possible, but it’s also why we will continue to learn the lessons as we go from the data.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said that those responsible must be held accountable.
He said: “This is utterly shameful. The SNP Government breached legislation and kept the scale of care home deaths secret for 8 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.”