Holyrood passes emergency powers to intervene in care homes

Scotland’s government was given emergency powers on Wednesday to intervene in care homes that cannot cope with coronavirus infections, a move which angered some operators but reflects concern over conditions in the sector.

The temporary powers were part of wider coronavirus legislation passed by the Scottish parliament on the same day that health authorities agreed to allow HC-One, a private care home operator, to retain its formal management of a facility on the Isle of Skye where 10 residents have died of Covid-19.

More than half of Scotland’s coronavirus deaths in recent weeks have been in care homes, fuelling criticism of the Scottish National party government’s record on supplies of personal protective equipment for staff and of what some operators say is inadequate infection testing.

Data released by the National Records for Scotland on Wednesday showed that the number of Covid-19 deaths in Scottish care homes fell for the third week in a row in the seven days to May 17. The data showed that coronavirus was mentioned on the death certificate of 184 people in care homes, down by 54 from the previous seven days.

However, concerns remain over care home managers’ ability to control the virus. Under the powers approved on Wednesday, the Scottish government will be able to apply to a judge for an emergency intervention order at a care home where “standards of care are not adequate in relation to managing coronavirus”.

The government will, in “extreme situations”, be able to step in before going to court if ministers believe that lives are at risk.

Robert Kilgour, executive chairman of the Renaissance Care group, said the new powers were a “slap in the face” for a private sector that faced much greater scrutiny than publicly run care homes.

“It sadly feels like the Scottish government is trying to make us scapegoats for its own failures,” said Mr Kilgour, whose company runs 15 homes in Scotland. “Many owners have genuine concern that this is an attempt to nationalise the care sector through the back door.”

There have been reports of coronavirus raging through some Scottish care homes. One of the most notorious examples has been the Home Farm facility run by HC-One on Skye. As well as 10 residents who died, 30 others and 29 staff tested positive for Covid-19 at what is a 40-bed facility.

This month, NHS Highland moved in to “support” the care home with the agreement of its owners and health authorities. It then sought to take complete control by applying for court approval to suspend HC-One’s registration of the facility.

However, in a video hearing at the Inverness Sheriff Court on Wednesday, a lawyer for Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland said the government agency had agreed with HC-One to hold off on the “nuclear option” of suspension. Instead, officials would continue to work with HC-One to improve conditions at the home, the Press Association reported.

In a statement to the Highland Times, Kate Forbes, the local member of the Scottish parliament and Scotland’s finance secretary, said people on Skye would be reassured that NHS Highland was “effectively running the home”.

The new Scottish legislation also makes clear that government agencies and local authorities have the power to buy care homes if they are unable to provide adequate services.

In England and Wales, local authorities are responsible for taking over care homes and finding alternative accommodation if they collapse. Last week the UK government announced that an extra £600m would be allocated to English local authorities to help care homes cope with Covid-19.

HC-One, which has had coronavirus in about two-thirds of its more than 300 care homes, has already asked for a UK government bailout.

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