Editorial: Skye nursing home is a tragic lesson in the vulnerability of the care sector

Flowers at Home Farm this week

WHFP Editorial: 8.5.2020

Last week we suggested that there were two ways to interpret this region’s comparative immunity to the worst effects of coronavirus.

Either we were about to be extremely lucky and escape the worst of the pandemic.

Or we were simply at the back of a very long queue, and the full impact of Covid-19 would reach us late.

The events in Skye this week appear to answer the question.

At one single location, the Home Farm Nursing Home in Portree, 57 new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the first few days of this week.

That figure – small in the national and international context – amounted to no fewer than one-sixth of all confirmed Covid-19 cases in the huge NHS Highland region, most of whose coronavirus patients had previously been found in the city of Inverness and its populous surroundings on the north-east coast.

There are 320,000 people in the NHS Highland catchment area, which reaches from Kintyre to Caithness.

There are 10,000 people in Skye.

Suddenly, an island with three per cent of NHS Highland’s population contained 20 per cent of its confirmed 300 coronavirus cases.

That should squash any idea of the north-west Highlands and Islands being used as a test bed for easing the lockdown and returning to “normality” – a notion which was proposed because of our low number of Covid-19 patients.

It is true that the main proponents of the test bed theory suggested that it should be trialled in the Western Isles before being rolled out across the rest of the Highlands.

The Western Isles are of course protected by a screen of ferries, which Skye and most of the Highland mainland is not.

But nobody sane will now want to risk the Portree Home Farm Nursing Home tragedy being repeated across the Minch at Bethesda in Stornoway, Taigh a’Chridhe Uile Naomh in Daliburgh, Trianaid in Carinish or St Brendan’s in Barra.

This also shines a light on a broader, national issue.

You do not need to be a scientist or an expert of any kind to realise that the coronavirus will find nursing and care homes to be ideal incubators.

They are enclosed spaces which contain, by definition, the virus’s most vulnerable potential victims.

But from the very beginning of this crisis, care homes have been a neglected sector.

Indeed, a secret official report from 2017, which was leaked to the press this week, raised serious questions about the ability of our care homes to cope with such a pandemic as the coronavirus which arrived on our shores early in 2020.

That report, which made specific recommendations for improvements to the care sector in such areas as staffing and the provision of personal protective equipment, appears more or less to have been ignored by the UK Government.

Following the leak of the report, the chief executive of the National Care Forum, the umbrella body of not-for-profit care homes and outreach carers, said: “The sort of plan you might anticipate coming from these recommendations has not been evident in terms of a national or local government approach.

“They might have done this planning behind the scenes, but they haven’t involved the care providers.”

We doubt very much that the government has, in the three years between the report and the coronavirus pandemic, done much “planning behind the scenes”.

One of the government’s lowest points among many came when prime minister Boris Johnson’s special advisor was reported as recommending that the premature death of some elderly people would be a price worth paying.

There will be a reckoning for such views and such behaviour.

There will be another report in the future into how and why the United Kingdom suffered more from coronavirus than almost any other country in the developed world.

None of this should reflect on the good and brave people who staff such institutions as the Home Farm Nursing Home.

They are our frontline defences and they deserve all of our acclaim and support.

That point was well made by Skye councillor John Gordon, whose father John Angus was among those who grievously succumbed to coronavirus in Portree.‪

“We as a family will support, defend, applaud and thank the staff within the home, they have been amazing,” wrote councillor Gordon on social media.

Noting that while those very staff members – many of whom are also coronavirus victims themselves – are, to put it mildly, not well paid, a senior director of their employer, HC-One, has taken £2.5 million out of the company in the last ten years, councillor Gordon continued: “‪It is time to stop capitalism within the care sector‬.”

It is indeed.

Nursing homes and palliative care have been at the forefront of the creeping privatisation of the National Health Service.

They should be brought back into public hands. Nobody should be allowed to benefit materially from what is the civic duty of a decent society.

It should not take the system going horribly wrong, as it has in Skye this week, to bring those points home, even if your home is at Number 10, Downing Street.