A grieving son whose mother died from coronavirus in a Fife care home is worried the public are not taking the threat seriously enough, as pubs and shops prepare to reopen north of the border.
Alan Wightman, whose 88-year-old mum Helen passed away after contracting coronavirus in Scoonie House in Leven in May, is the Scottish spokesman for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK.
They have campaigned for an independent inquiry into care home deaths, both in the wider UK and Scotland.
Mr Wightman chaired a meeting with Nicola Sturgeon on March 22, and welcomed her agreement to holding an inquiry north of the border this year.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has since admitted potentially infected patients were incorrectly moved out of hospitals into care homes at the start of the pandemic.
She said the Scottish Government failed to stop the spread of the infection, and failed to understand the social care sector as a whole, adding that the Scottish Government “didn’t take the right precautions” and that it was “a mistake”.
Mr Wightman said the Covid group has written to Boris Johnson and the UK Government six times seeking a meeting but had been refused or ignored.
He said: “I was very encouraged by that meeting. The first minister has said there will be an inquiry and Jeane Freeman is now coming out and admitting her mistakes.
“Nicola Sturgeon, thus far, is the only leader of any of the four nations to say she will have a public inquiry and it will be this year.
“The questions about what Jeane Freeman – what did she know, what didn’t she know – will all be addressed through the public inquiry.
“We will be involved in setting the terms of reference for the inquiry in Scotland.”
‘I believe the first minister will deliver’
A public inquiry begins when its terms of reference are set out. These are specific instructions outlining the questions that the inquiry should address, the types of information and feedback that the government wants, and often a sense of when the inquiry should issue its report.
Mr Wightman continued: “That will make sure that our views are collected, and organised and put forward in setting those terms of reference.
“I can’t really say at this stage what we think they might be but I think we have a good idea within the group.
“I’m perfectly happy at the moment with what has been promised to our group, and I believe the first minister will deliver. I’m not interested in bashing her or her party to score political points for somebody else.
“We want what we were promised; a statutory public inquiry, led by a judge, with a human rights basis, looking at how the pandemic was handled in Scotland.”
Discussing a UK-wide inquiry, Mr Wightman said: “Boris Johnson has been approached by our group six times and asked if he will sit down and speak to us and six times he has either ignored us or point-blank refused and said ‘no’.
“So the chances of a four-nation inquiry are minimal in my mind, but never underestimate the power of the first minister, she might just be able to persuade him.
“We are keen that we get some kind of inquiry on the aspects that are devolved, and it gives a lead to the rest of the UK, and says, ‘if Scotland can do it, why can’t you?’.
“I want an honest inquiry with no information hidden, the facts on the table, and the judge to make his decision and recommendations – I’m not prejudging anybody or anything.
“The group said that all it has ever wanted is for lessons to be learned so that other families don’t have to suffer through the same mistakes being repeated.”
Mr Wightman said the group has more than 3,500 members from across the UK, and every person had lost a loved one to coronavirus.
He continued: “(The UK Government) is hiding behind ‘now is not the right time, we’re in the middle of a pandemic’.
“If you had done it at the end of the first wave, maybe we wouldn’t have had a second wave and we wouldn’t have been in the middle of it now.
“There are stories coming out now from wave two, that are depressingly familiar from wave one.
‘Don’t seem to have learned much’
“We don’t seem to have learned very much, we are seeing the same things happening again.
“Allowing any government to mark its own homework is never satisfactory. It has to be an independent, investigative-minded person such as a judge who can command people to appear before them and demand documents are produced.
“That’s the only way we’ll really end up learning lessons.
“There are still things happening today that happened almost a year ago, and the outcome is just the same.”
‘Haven’t grieved properly’
Mr Wightman said the issue of coping with the loss of a loved one, while dealing with the fact they feel the situation may have been mishandled by the government or a care provider, was making it tough for people to grieve.
He said: “One of the main things that gets group members down is not being able to grieve properly because it’s not like a death at a normal time.
“Usually you’ve got family around you, people can come and comfort you – you can’t have that.
“Many people still haven’t grieved properly and there’s a big well building up now of people who really need some grief counselling, and it’s just not available.
“There are people not being able to be in hospitals and in care homes with their loved one, knowing full well they’re dying and not being allowed in.
“Or being allowed in wearing full PPE, and for just 10 minutes at a time. Or having to say goodbye over a Zoom link on an iPad.
‘A huge amount of guilt’
“There’s a huge amount of guilt that comes with that for the person who wasn’t there for their loved one.
“Some places have been marvellous. I know someone who speaks really highly of the way they were treated by Ninewells Hospital when their loved one died, they couldn’t have done more for them.
“But others, it’s a phone call in the middle of the night to say, ‘oh they’ve gone’.
“Having phoned up before they went to bed to be told they’re fine, they get a phone call in the morning to say they’ve gone, they’ve died.
“People then say, ‘Well you never said they were this ill four hours ago?’.
“Then there’s inconsistency. People start asking questions and they get inconsistent answers. Records are not consistent with the stories they’re being told, this sort of thing.
“And you have to have some sympathy for the hospital staff as well. They’re overwhelmed with it and are doing the damn best they can.”
Mr Wightman said the care home his mother had been in had take all the precautions it could have to look after his mother.
‘Too late for my mum’
“I was lucky, the care home my mother was in was well-run, it closed down early and sourced its own PPE,” he said.
“I believe that care home did everything it reasonably could have, and more than it was expected to. But, once (coronavirus) is in the building, it’s deadly for old people.
“Which is why I’m so opposed and remain opposed to discharging Covid-positive patients from hospitals into care homes, which we did in March and April of last year.
“That was government policy then. I know it changed in April, but it was too late for my mum.”
‘Sleepwalking into another wave’
Mr Wightman said the coverage of pubs reopening in England on April 12 had left him dismayed at the attitude of the public, and fearful of another wave of Covid-19.
He said: “On Monday on the news at lunchtime, what was it all about? Opening the pubs.
“People queuing up at one minute past midnight so that the pub could open and serve them.
“People sitting in beer gardens and they are talking about going on their summer holidays. It’s the day that we’ve only just opened the pubs and they are being encouraged to go out and drink and then talk about summer holidays.
“Have we learned nothing at all during this pandemic?
“There were shopping areas yesterday on the news, filled with people and not many of them wearing masks, not much social distancing going on. We are just sleepwalking into another wave here.
“The government don’t seem to have the right messaging to stop people doing it.
“I don’t know anyone in our group who is that cavalier about it and rushing out to the pub and social events, looking forward to going to concerts or off to Spain or Greece for their summer holidays.
“These people just don’t seem to understand what loss means. They have no concept of it, and I would go further, they have no concept of social responsibility.
“They’re all great at shouting about their rights, ‘I’m British, I’m a free person, no one can keep me cooped up in my house’.
“What about their responsibility to their fellow citizens? They never seem to talk about that.
“You can be asymptomatic, sitting in a group of people, wandering about, spreading it, not even knowing you’ve got it. That’s what we’re dealing with here.
“And I still think the British populous hasn’t grasped that fact. We’ve had 150,000 deaths. How serious does it have to get before the penny drops?”
‘Every death a tragedy’
A UK Government spokeswoman said: “Every death from this virus is a tragedy and our sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones.
“As we have previously said, there will be an appropriate time in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this global pandemic.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said Mr Wightman’s concerns had been dealt with during the First Minister’s briefing on Tuesday.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We can see why we still need to be cautious by looking quickly around many other countries across Europe and the world.
“We have also seen over the past week or so some easing of restrictions, so last week we saw the re-opening of hairdressers and some retail outlets.
“And, of course, over this week and next week, there will be a much more significant change as all secondary schools return full time.
“So we have to be careful – and that has always been the way with this virus – not to do too much all at once. We don’t want the virus quickly gaining ground again, particularly as we know this new variant is more infectious, and then setting us all back.”
‘I wish I could turn the clock back’
Discussing care homes, Ms Sturgeon said: “I wish with everything I’ve got that these decisions back then had been clearer-cut, and simpler and easier, and we could all foresee exactly what was going to happen.
“Rightly, people hold politicians and leaders like me to account for this, and please believe me when I say I carry the weight of this every single day and always will, in terms of the decisions we were taking.
“And I think you can oversimplify and say, ‘When did you realise you made a mistake?’.
“We learned more about the virus and we adapted what we did in light of that. As we were, I think, right to do.
“I wish I could turn the clock back, know everything then that we know now, and make different decisions at the outset, but I can’t do that.
“I’ve always tried to be open about that; I always will try to be open about that, and I always will be absolutely as long as I’m responsible for these decisions, I will be absolutely determined to make sure there’s full scrutiny and accountability through the public inquiry that I’ve already spoken about.”