Long-running Covid probe exhausts burnt out care home staff and bereaved families

Care home chiefs say investigation into covid deaths is taking its toll on the sector - while families 'wait in limbo' for answers.

Bereaved families and care home staff have opened up about the long-running probe into Covid-linked deaths in Scotland’s care homes.

More than 6,000 Covid care home deaths across 474 care homes are being examined as part of Operation Koper – the Crown’s biggest investigation of deaths in Scottish history.

Many bereaved families are hoping for answers, while those working in the sector say its “piling pressure” on already burnt out staff.

The £4m investigation began in May 2020, when the Covid Deaths Investigation Team was jointly set up by the Crown and Police Scotland.

‘My mum was everything to me’

Ruth said search for answers over her mum's death has been a 'long journey'

Ruth Gibson lost her mother Anna aged 94 on November 15 2020 after she was diagnosed with Covid.

Anna was a resident at Meldrum Care Home, Walnut Grove in East Kilbride.

Ruth said she received a phone call from bosses saying two staff members had tested positive on November 11, though she was assured her mum’s unit wasn’t affected.

On November 14, Ruth was notified her mum had tested positive for Covid. She died the following day.

Ruth said she had pleaded with the care home the night before her mum’s death to notify her if she was nearing the end of her life.

The next day, she received an urgent call from staff to come to the home to be by her mum’s side – only to find out she had died an hour earlier.

Ruth told STV News: “She was everything to me. She meant the world to me. She was a family person.

“You wonder why she didn’t access any palliative care.

“I have questions about how long my mum actually had Covid.

“Hearing she was on her own is something I’ll never be able to accept. I could have been there.

“To not be there when she needed you, it’s difficult to live with.”

Ruth believes there were “a lot of red flags” around the level of care provided for her mum.

Ruth was described as 'gentle' and a 'family person'

She claims the batteries for her mum’s hearing aids had not been replaced, making video calls difficult.

She said she was concerned over her rapid weight loss and her ability to swallow medication among other issues.

Ruth called her doctor and the Care Inspectorate, sharing fears over her mum’s declining health.

She said: “I could see a complete deterioration on our Skype calls. She was drowsy and falling asleep. I was absolutely horrified.

“I raised concerns that I thought she was dying.

“They gave me reassurance that my mum was doing well and I believed them.

“I had a forethought something bad was going to happen – and it did.”

Ruth also recalled one of her last “traumatising” in-person visits with her mum, who she was permitted to see for ten minutes from a distance.

“I didn’t expect to see my mum in the condition she was in,” she said.

“I was standing away from her. She looked like she was reaching out and couldn’t speak. They told her ‘Ruth has to leave’ and to say goodbye and she managed to say no.

“I am haunted. There are no other words. If I had been able to be with her and support her, that would have made a difference.”

Ruth welcomes the probe and said her personal search for answers over her mum’s death has been a “very long journey”.

She said: “We’re waiting in limbo, but we understand it’s a mammoth task with the sheer numbers.

“There are a lot of questions and we’re having to access the answers through different routes. There is a lot of contradictory information.

“It wont take away the fact I could not be there for my mum when she died, but hopefully it will bring me some closure.”

A spokesperson for South Lanarkshire Council said: “Operation Koper is an ongoing investigation by Police Scotland in which every care home in the country is required to submit details of every death of a resident from Covid 19. We fully expect that, as is the remit of the investigation, each case is being looked at in detail, including that of Mrs Gibson.

“The welfare and care support of all our care home residents remains paramount, with health care also being overseen by GPs and other health and social care professionals. All infection protection measures were, and continue to be, followed in line with Public Health guidance, including protocols in respect to testing regimes.

“The national advice at the time was that care home residents should only be subjected to testing, which is quite invasive, if necessary.

“Following a complaint by the Gibson family, a full investigation was carried out in line with the Social Work Resources Complaints Handling Procedure. This found no issues with the level of care provided.”

‘We’re facing never-ending pressure’

Care home chiefs say they are facing 'prolonged pressure' amid continuing probe into covid-linked deaths

This care home manager, who cannot be identified, says its putting extra pressure on staff and after handing over piles of paperwork, has now been asked to give a statement to police.

She told STV News: “When I first read the email, I felt as if they were accusing me personally of something.

“I’m quite strongly convicted we did nothing wrong.

“We acted in the best interest of our residents throughout the whole pandemic. To get that through, to give a statement to justify our actions, felt really unfair.”

“It wasn’t a nice place to go back to. We remember every individual.

“It wasn’t numbers. It was people.

“People, in all honesty, who died too soon because of a situation out of anyone’s control.”

The manager says it is “unfair” that Covid-linked deaths in hospital settings are not subject to the same levels of investigation.

“We’re not treated the same as our colleagues in health. It’s like discrimination,” she said.

“I know a lot of people who worked in hospitals during the pandemic, some of those stories were quite disturbing.

“Lots of people died in hospitals and no one is asked to justify their actions, who went where and how many deaths there were.”

She also fears the “prolonged pressure” will worsen the staffing crisis faced by the sector – and said she knows care home managers who have since left their jobs.

“People working here will think ‘you know what? this is too much.’ Hand on heart, I’ve thought that,” she said.

“You come to do your best, it seems to be a never-ending pile of pressure from scrutiny, and regulations.

“You take that home with you and it’s just not healthy.

“I think it shows how little value there is for people working in social care.”

‘It’s had a profound impact’

Dr Donald MacAskill

Scottish Care chief Donald MacAskill said the probe has cast a “cloud of guilt” over the sector.

He said: “We understand the need for families to get answers over the loss of relatives in care homes.

“But this mechanism is not the means to achieve the concerns of families and staff.

“The operation has had a profound impact on the mental and physical health of hundreds and thousands nursing and care staff.

“They have had that uncertainty hanging over them that they could have done more to support individuals.

“We consider this to be an investigation which unfairly characterised the care home sector and has been disproportionate.

“We’re not seeing the same focus on the deaths in hospital settings.”

‘It’s important lessons are learned’

A spokesperson for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said: “COPFS recognise that for bereaved families the pandemic has had a devastating and lasting impact on their lives. 

“The pandemic resulted in over 6,000 Covid deaths being reported to the Procurator Fiscal since 2020. 

“This is the single most significant and challenging death investigation we have ever undertaken.

“It is important these deaths are understood and that any lessons can be learned to prevent deaths in the future.

“Our specialist lawyers continue to work with partner agencies to collate information from care homes, employers, NHS, and the Scottish Government for investigation.”

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