'No capacity' to test care home staff, NHS Borders document reveals

The NHS in the Borders told the Scottish government it had "no capacity" to bring in ministers' policy of regularly testing all staff in care homes, ITV Border has learned.

A document sent by NHS Borders to civil servants in Edinburgh on 29 May, which we have obtained, said: "It is estimated that between 1300-1500 care home staff swabs would need to be taken each week.

"There is currently no capacity within existing NHS testing team to visit homes for this purpose."

It said it was "recognised" that neither the NHS Borders or NHS Lothian laboratories, where some tests from the Borders could be done, "have the capacity to manage this level of additional tests".

Cabinet Secretary for health, Jeane Freeman, told MSPs on 19 May that "all care home staff will be offered testing, regardless of whether the care home in which they work has a Covid-19 case".

The lack of testing in the south of Scotland has been reinforced by new information from Scottish Borders council, which runs the Saltgreens care home in Eyemouth, where there have been seven deaths.

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Council chief executive Tracey Logan said in a statement: “There is a new national policy, which calls for the testing of all care home staff on a weekly basis. This process is to be carried out through a national portal, which we expect to be active imminently."

She added that the Borders had been allocated 480 tests but the council employed around 1200 care home employees.

The testing of the additional 720 staff would be met "through the current employer referral portal and initially these cases will be directed to the mobile testing unit in Galashiels".

Meanwhile, the manager of a care home in Castle Douglas, part of a group which also has homes in England, has told us none of their staff in Scotland has been tested.

Kelly Henderson, manager at Carlingwark Care Home in Castle Douglas, part of the Community Integrated Care charity said: "The only residents who have been tested are discharges from hospital.

"The homes in England that Community Integrated Care run have all been tested, all staff and all residents. England are far in front. Scotland really need to catch up here."

One of the charity's Managing Directors, Martin McGuigan, told ITV Border the Scottish Government had initially provided more support than the UK Government, but was falling behind. "All too often we've seen policy on the hoof, that local health teams are left to deliver and practically translate on the ground a day later", he said.

ITV Border put these facts to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at her regular media briefing this afternoon.

We asked whether the fact universal testing is not yet happening in the south of Scotland is her responsibility, rather than health boards, councils or the care homes?

Ms Sturgeon replied: "I don't think you've ever heard me trying to evade responsibility for any aspect of this but I would also not be doing my job properly if I didn't talk about the different partnerships we work within to make sure the policies we set are delivered."

The First Minister repeated the statement by Ms Freeman who spoke last week to chief executives of health boards who "didn't raise concerns then about capacity".

Any health board chief executive with concerns about capacity "knows where to come" to resolve that, Ms Sturgeon said.

New data on testing will be published tomorrow which will show where health boards "are making progress and some need to make more progress and the job of the government is to support them and make sure they have the resources to do that", the First Minister said. There will be "complete transparency".

Ms Sturgeon said: "My job is to make sure that these things happen in Scotland." The situation in England "may have moved on", she added, but originally tests in England were a one off, whereas they would be regular in Scotland.

Getting the systems in place may be taking "a bit longer than we might like", but it was important to get the testing right, Ms Sturgeon told the briefing, adding: "It's not my job to comment on England."

The First Minister said she had read that some tests had been posted to care homes in England. She said it was not clear to her how many were done and sent back.

She continued: "That's not for me to worry about but we are putting in place a system here in Scotland that is robust and will require to test staff on a regular basis."

Miles Briggs, Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, said: “It’s clear that the SNP government’s plan to test all care workers is simply not happening.“Even worse, there’s no way testing all care home staff is going to be possible anytime soon.

“Without an efficient testing regime in Scottish care homes, it is far more difficult to contain this virus and keep residents safe.

“The Health Secretary made this promise without any ability to deliver it, once again failing the residents and staff of care homes across the country.”

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ITV Border asked NHS Borders to comment on the document, and specifically asked if there had been any change since it was sent to the Scottish government at the end of May?

We also asked whether the chief executive of NHS Borders had raised the issue of testing capacity with the Scottish government and about the references to the mobile testing centres and the portal in the document.

NHS Borders told us the council's statement was their position, though they added they aim to for test results to be available "within 48 hours".

ITV Border was told to contact the Scottish government about the 'portal' and mobile testing.

NHS Borders did not answer any of the other questions we put to them.

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In a statement, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Weekly testing for staff working in care homes will be achieved through a range of methods, or a combination of those methods.

"These include the UK Government Social Care Testing portal, mobile test units, self-test kits, employer referral process and local Health board testing capacity.

“Health boards will inform individual care homes which method will be used in their care home."

The spokesperson added: “The UK government social care portal opened for use in Scotland on June 8 and supporting guidance is currently being reviewed to ensure it reflects Scottish Government policy and Health Protection Scotland Guidance.

“Each health board has been allocated a number of tests available through the portal, a figure which we are pleased has now been increased.

"This allocation should be utilised as part of an overall testing strategy, along with the other methods detailed above. We expect capacity in the portal to increase and NHS Boards will be informed of any additional capacity as it becomes available."