Care home residents treated 'like exhibits in reptile museum' Covid inquiry told

24 October 2023, 16:17

Alan Inglis (right) with his son Calum who died as a result of contracting Covid while in prison.
Alan Inglis (right) with his son Calum who died as a result of contracting Covid while in prison. . Picture: Provided

By Gina Davidson

Covid restrictions left care home residents like "exhibits in a reptile museum" with families unable to give their loved ones a hug, while parents of children with special needs were left "abandoned" after support was withdrawn, Scotland's Covid inquiry has heard on its first day.

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Lawyers representing core participant groups laid out the mental, physical and emotional impact the pandemic wrought on different sections of society, including health and social care staff.

Chaired by Lord Brailsford, the delayed inquiry finally got underway in Edinburgh, and will investigate the response by the Scottish Government to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the first phase of hearings concentrating on the health and social care impacts.

Later phases will look at education and young people, business and financial and welfare support.

Speaking on behalf of Care Home Relatives Scotland, Amber Galbraith KC, said residents in care homes suffered an "unnecessarily disproportionate" impact on their lives which left them feeling "isolated, unheard and discriminated against."

She told a a story where a member of CHRS had been forced to sit two metres distant from her mother and just watch "as she was physically restrained" from walking towards her for a cuddle, while restrictions mandated that care home residents were not able to touch loved ones while they visited.

She added: "A carer was able to sit beside her and hold her hand, but not her daughter. What is that, if not discrimination? Why were carers considered less of a risk to health than parents or children?

"Their mental state may have been such that all they knew was being suddenly left with no visits, no touch, not even allowed to see others in the home."

She added: "Faces became hidden behind masks, and skin-hungry, with no cuddles or hands to hold, perhaps they would be paraded out behind glass like an exhibit at a reptile museum or a prisoner."

The inquiry also heard from David Di Paola, a solicitor representing CrossReach, a social care organisation operated by the Church of Scotland.

He told the inquiry the sector was already under-funded before the pandemic, but Covid made matters far worse as PPE costs soared, income fell, and there was a rise in insurance premiums and spending on agency staff.

And he criticised the Scottish Government's approach to implementing guidelines and rules which he said were either non-existent or "came thick and fast, often unclear and sometimes unhelpful and came with short implementation windows."

He said that not consulting with the sector meant opportunities were lost to allow guidance to be more appropriate for social care settings - "they are not akin to clinical settings, they are people's homes, and there was a mistaken belief that they were similar, so infection control standards were impossible to achieve."

And he reiterated concerns that people were not tested before being moved from hospitals into care homes. "Care homes were effectively requisitioned by the Scottish Government, without it taking responsibility for them," he said.

CrossReach also had incidents when children in their care were prevented from seeing members of their families - he said their rights were breached. "This would not have been tolerated in a normal family setting" he said.

The inquiry also heard from solicitor Rachel Holt representing families of children with special needs, especially autism and anxiety. Withdrawal of school, of support and of routine had a devastating impact, she said and saw some children attempt to take their own lives.

She told how one child had been getting support online but the counsellor couldn't see he was "picking his fingers til they bled... only by his third attempt to take his life was he able to see a psychiatrist face-to-face," she said.

Amber Galbraith KC, also speaking on behalf of Promoting a More Inclusive Society Scotland, said some families became so worried they considered suicide pacts.

Speaking on behalf of Scottish ministers, Geoffrey Mitchell KC said questions had arisen about whether the suffering was "too great."

He said: "The Scottish Government is well placed to explain the strategic decisions made during that time.

"The Scottish Government is too well aware of the loss and suffering experienced in that (health and social care) sector, and in Scotland as a whole. On behalf of the Scottish Government, I would like to recognise that loss.

"This pain, suffering, sacrifice and endurance is recognised, understood and acknowledged by the Scottish Government.

"The Scottish Government understand that legitimate questions arise as to whether the suffering needed to be so great."

Before the inquiry officially began, one member of core participant group, Scottish Covid Bereaved, told reporters he needed an answer to why his asthmatic son was not seen by a nurse, while he was imprisoned in HMP Addiewell in West Lothian. Calum Inglis, 34, died alone in his prison cell after testing positive for Covid-19.

Speaking on the second anniversary of the death of his son Mr Inglis called for answers over the "barbaric" way his son was treated.

He said: "On 12 October 2021 my son Calum tested positive for Covid-19 while serving a short term in Addiewell prison, West Lothian.

"Calum was unvaccinated and was asthmatic. Within the next 12 days Calum's health would deteriorate rapidly. Throughout this entire period he was not seen by a nurse.

"He reported being breathless and coughing up significant amounts of blood. In the last four days of his life he repeatedly requested medical attention via his cell intercom, to be promised by the prison officers that someone would see him.

"On 24 October 2021, two years today, my son was found unresponsive in his cell. He died alone, without help, without dignity.

"The Scottish Covid Inquiry must find out which protocols the prison were following at this time, protocols that would allow such barbaric behaviour to take place, and to examine the staff work culture within that prison where staff must have known how ill my son was, yet did nothing.

"I am looking for accountability and looking to this inquiry to deliver it."

HMP Addiewell is a private prison run by Sodexo Justice Services on behalf of the Scottish Prison Service. A spokesperson said: "We understand that this continues to be a very difficult time for Mr Inglis's family and our thoughts and condolences remain with them.

"It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage, but I can confirm that we are continuing to work with all relevant authorities in advance of any future fatal accident inquiry."

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said: "Our thoughts continue to be with the family and loved ones of Mr Inglis.The Scottish Prison Service is fully committed to working with the Scottish Covid Inquiry and supporting its important work."

Margaret Waterton, 67, who lost her mother Margaret Simpson, 86, and her husband David Waterton, 71, during the pandemic, said: "Covid has been absolutely devastating for me and my family and every man, woman and child in Scotland has felt the impact of Covid.

"This is a landmark day for Scottish Covid bereaved, for the people of Scotland. We are looking now for the inquiry to deliver for us truth, justice, accountability, so that the decision-makers can learn from our lived experience the impact that their decisions or lack of decision-making had upon us."

Opening the inquiry, chair Lord Brailsford said: "I wish to begin by reiterating my sincere condolences and those of the inquiry team to those who lost loved ones to Covid-19 and our sympathy to the many people who have been and continue to be affected by the pandemic."

The inquiry also heard from Andrew Webster KC, representing the Scottish Healthcare Workers Coalition, who said the inquiry needed to "repay a nation's indebtedness to these individuals - they seek truth, accountability and recognition of harms they have suffered.

"They look to this inquiry to record their experiences, so let us acknowledge the sacrifices made, the risks taken."

He said many healthcare staff had been left dealing with diagnoses of Long Covid and questions about whether the potential for post-viral illness had been taken into account by the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland had to be answered.

"As long term post-viral illness was known before pandemic, was it foreseen here? Were consequences weighed and acted on appropriately?" he said,

The inquiry continues.

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