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NHS Scotland accused of stonewalling families over Covid deaths

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Families of Covid victims have accused Scots health boards of a culture of cover-up after being denied their medical records.

Bereaved relatives claim health authorities, along with some care and nursing homes, have obstructed efforts to obtain information about loved ones’ deaths.

Ministers have been urged to intervene to ensure full transparency before the judge-led inquiry into the official response to the pandemic starts later this year.

Alan Wightman of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, who lost his mother to the virus, said there should be no obstacles for relatives requesting information: “Grieving members of our group have struggled to get access to medical records and barriers have been put in the way. Health boards have claimed relatives are not next of kin, or said they don’t recognise them as next of kin.

“Relatives are having to jump through hoops. Some have had to go to solicitors to get them to write to ask for records. Health boards seem to want to stretch out the timescales and then blame the pandemic for delays in releasing the medical records relatives are entitled to.”

The lawyer representing the families’ group yesterday said ministers must move to ensure all information is available to relatives before the inquiry led by judge Lady Poole begins.

Aamer Anwar is to meet Lady Poole this week when he will raise concerns about a lack of transparency in the NHS, with some families being refused access to files while other hospitals say they will not be available for another year.

He said: “The bereaved families we represent speak of their upset and anger over the brick wall they face when asking the hospitals, care homes or nursing homes for information about the death of a family member.

“Some families are simply refused the medical records, others are told it will be more than a year before they become accessible.

“Why? The refusal to ­provide basic information only breeds suspicion that there is something to hide and cover-up. There was a culture of cover-up and self-protection prior to the pandemic but seems to have worsened.

“This is not about ­frontline staff but about transparency and accountability at executive level.”

Aamer Anwar

Anwar said any delay in getting records could be critical to families considering legal action over a relative’s death because of a three-year time bar.

After requests for ­information were refused, some families have had to resort to making Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to learn more about the circumstances of a death, such as whether wards were understaffed or if infection control measures were in place.

But they have discovered that eight of Scotland’s 14 health boards – including those that have seen the highest Covid deaths – do not publish the responses on their website.

Anwar said that, when he raised his concerns with NHS Scotland, he was told it was good practice, but not mandatory, to publish FoI responses. He was also told all FoI answers are kept for three years – but one health board then told him it destroyed all FoI data after one year.

Anwar said: “This raises significant concerns. The families are grateful to the Scottish Government for calling a public inquiry but they expect that no stone will be left unturned.

“There is real concern that health boards are trying to protect themselves from the spotlight being placed on them. They already have an army of lawyers and accountants looking at all these issues.”

One bereaved relative who is calling for transparency from all health boards is Jane Morrison, whose wife Jacky died aged 49 in October 2020 after she contracted Covid in Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital while being treated for jaundice.

She is not seeking compensation but wants to know why patients were only tested if they had Covid symptoms. “Jacky caught it on Day 15 in hospital so there was no doubt it was hospital-acquired,” said Morrison.

“Patients were not made to wear a mask when they were moved around the hospital for tests but I think the main problem was you could only get a test if you had one of the three cardinal symptoms.

“Testing should have been a priority for everyone in hospital right from the ­outset. I’m not after compensation but we have got to learn from these mistakes because, if we don’t, that’s the biggest disservice we can do to all those who have died.”

NHS Tayside said it followed Public Health Scotland and Scottish Government guidance at all stages of the pandemic.

Last year The Post told how evidence given to a public inquiry about alleged failings at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow was kept secret.

Theresa Smith, whose baby Sophia died in March 2017, 12 days after being born at the hospital, was allowed to give evidence in full to the inquiry led by Lord Brodie but, after legal applications by the Scottish Government and Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, much of it remains private and is redacted on the inquiry’s website.

The Scottish Government said: “Our thoughts are with everyone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, and we expect health boards to do everything possible to ensure that families get the answers they are seeking.

“We expect all health boards to comply with FoI legislation. Enforcement of FoI legislation is a matter for the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC), and any public body which fails to provide FoIs in accordance with the law can be referred to the SIC by members of the public or their representatives.”

The inquiry

Lady Poole QC

Scotland’s Covid inquiry will be led by Lady Poole QC, a senator of the College of Justice Scotland.

She is currently in the process of appointing staff before the inquiry begins to consider evidence. The inquiry is expected to begin this year – though no date has been fixed.

The period covered by the inquiry will be from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2022, and it will look at 12 areas around the handling of the pandemic, including the decision to enter lockdown, the supply and distribution of personal protective equipment and how care homes dealt with the virus.

It will also look at pre-pandemic planning. Poole will also co-ordinate her inquiry with the head of the UK-wide inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallett.