A Scottish Government body has been criticised for its “lack of transparency” after trying to block the release of coronavirus death rates for individual care homes.
National Records of Scotland (NRS) was found in breach of freedom of information (FOI) rules by refusing to reveal the Covid-19 fatality rate for facilities across the nation.
The Scottish Information Commissioner made the ruling following a joint appeal by the DC Thomson titles, The Scotsman, The Herald and STV.
It was concluded that the Scottish Government agency engaged in arguments that were “speculative in nature” in its attempts to block the publication of the statistics.
And the commissioner found that disclosure of the data would be important to “ensure that older people and their relatives have the necessary information to make an informed decision when choosing a care home or care home provider”.
Attempts by the NRS to keep the figures on care home deaths secret included interventions by the sector’s regulator, the Care Inspectorate, its representative body Scottish Care, and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace).
However, following an investigation by the information commissioner, the government body was found to have “failed to comply” with freedom of information legislation.
According to NRS statistics, more than 3,300 people have died in care homes due to Covid-19.
Controversies surrounded facilities such as Home Farm on Skye, where 10 residents died of coronavirus.
Earlier this week, a report by the Mental Welfare Commission raised legal concerns about the decision taken to move some patients from hospitals to care homes in Scotland at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, the Crown Office set up the Covid-19 Deaths Investigation Team (CDIT) to gather information on the circumstances of all deaths in care homes.
Responding to the FOI request, the NRS attempted to claim the information about individual care homes was exempt from disclosure due to data protection sensitivities.
This was rejected by the information commissioner on the basis that “‘personal data’ must relate to living individuals”.
The NRS later attempted to block the release of the statistics based on the possibility of the figures negatively impacting the commercial interests of care home operators.
It also claimed release would risk the health and safety of care home staff and residents.
Both arguments were rejected by the information commissioner on the basis that they did not apply to the information request.
In the decision notice issued by the commissioner, it was stated that there was a “strong public interest” in the release of the information, and that failure to release it would represent a “lack of transparency”.
Disclosure was important to “ensure that older people and their relatives have the necessary information to make an informed decision when choosing a care home or care home provider”, according to the ruling.
The commissioner does not see how the provision of the information requested on its own can be correlated to the harm claimed by the Registrar General, and to make such a connection based on the disclosure of the information requested appears purely speculative.”
The notice continued: “He considers that to deny those individuals the access to this relevant information would indeed be a lack of transparency, which is not in the public interest.
“In his view, it does not follow that disclosure of the specific information requested in this case would result in the adverse impacts on the care services, staff members, residents and families claimed by the Registrar General.
“The commissioner does not see how the provision of the information requested on its own can be correlated to the harm claimed by the Registrar General, and to make such a connection based on the disclosure of the information requested appears purely speculative.”
In the wake of the ruling, a spokesman for NRS said: “NRS continues to publish a range of information on Covid related mortality, including where the location of death is a care home.
“Our statistical analysis provides valuable information on characteristics of the deceased as well as presentation at health board and local authority level.
“Following review by the Scottish Information Commissioner of a FOI request to release data on individual care homes, NRS will make this data available in line with the original FOI request and the timeframe set out by the SIC.”
Scottish Care did not support the publication of this data because it is highly sensitive and risks identifying individual residents where small numbers are involved.”
A spokesman for Scottish Care said: “Scottish Care did not support the publication of this data because it is highly sensitive and risks identifying individual residents where small numbers are involved.
“This can potentially impact the privacy of individuals involved, the care home and frontline workers. There is a real risk to the health and wellbeing of staff, residents and relatives of the deceased.”
A Solace spokesman said: “Solace Scotland note the decision taken by the ICO and anticipate that NRS will now take steps to comply.”