TESTING must be made urgently available to residents and workers in care homes, ensuring that staff can return as soon possible, and minimising distress for elderly residents in quarantine, it has been claimed.

The call from Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, comes as it emerged that about half of Scotland’s privately-run care homes have suspected coronavirus cases amongst residents or staff.

Earlier this month, 13 residents at Glasgow’s Burlington Court Care Home died in just one week. The outbreak has also killed several residents at care homes in Dumbarton, North Lanarkshire and Tranent in recent weeks.

READ MORE: Virus linked to 13 deaths at Burlington Court care home

Macaskill stressed it was important to keep the deaths in context, with about three quarters of care home residents already receiving end-of-life or palliative care.

But he added that the need for testing to be made available in all residential homes, as well as for older people in the community, was becoming increasingly urgent as the outbreak began to reach its peak.

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Macaskill (above) claimed testing would ensure staff who tested negative could get out of quarantine and back to work. Meanwhile some residents – many of whom are struggling with the sudden suspension of visits and activities – are being put in distress needlessly by barrier nursing (where they are kept in isolation and at bay) because they are wrongly suspected of having the virus.

“The nature of the disease is that it impacts on the respiratory system in particular,” he told the Sunday National. “Yet the vast majority of people in a care home nowadays will have respiratory and multiple co-morbidities.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: FM's support pledge after 13 care home deaths

“There are huge issues with testing and we need to really focus on that. It’s critical on two fronts. We need to extend testing in care homes and while the Cabinet Secretary has indicated support for this, we need to add pace to her commitment to enable us to get staff back to work as we approach the heart of the pandemic.

“We need people in that peak period who have palliative and nursing skills not to be isolating unnecessarily and get back to work.

“We also need to test residents in home cares so that we can reduce the stress on them. Given the huge number of people living with dementia in care homes it is extremely stressful for them – and very intensive for staff to be barrier nursing someone as a suspected case, limiting their movement and freedom if it is not necessary.

“If testing was introduced it would reduce distress for the resident who doesn’t understand what is happening, and for the staff who can then focus on other needs. I hope in the next week that we really see significant improvement on that because it really is critical. At the moment it’s very patchy around the country.”

READ MORE: GPs to only visit care homes if needed, but PPE levels ‘greatly improved’

The Care Inspectorate is running an alert system to identify when and where staffing levels are reaching critical levels, he added, allowing the alarm to be raised in advance of extreme shortages.

In late March Spanish soldiers helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic found elderly patients in care homes abandoned, and in some cases, dead in their beds.

Macaskill added: “People are not going to be abandoned in Scotland, as happened in Spain, because we have protective measures in place.”

GMB Scotland organiser Drew Duffy said: “Service users and carers are dying, it’s a crisis within a crisis. Ministers have committed that they will finally get the vital PPE to desperate staff but they must also go further. Carers need testing to mitigate spread, maintain services and save lives.”

A mental health crisis for care workers is also looming, he added, with an urgent need for all employers to offer emotional support to workers. Many of them are watching vulnerable and distressed older people die alone after nursing them in challenging conditions. Duffy added: “We are nearing the peak of this crisis and there are tough times ahead but when we come through this there will be a reckoning. There must be a new settlement for these courageous workers and the essential service they deliver – we can never go back to ‘business as usual’.”

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Monica Lennon (above), Scottish Labour spokeswoman for health, called for greater transparency around the issue. She said: “Without access to testing the true extent of coronavirus spread in care homes is unknown, however, existing data should be published. The Care Inspectorate must not hide behind extended Freedom of Information timescales. Care workers and families are living in fear.

“Older people and others who rely on residential care appear to be an afterthought in the pandemic plan.They have spent a lifetime contributing to our society and should not be abandoned.”

READ MORE: Care sector: Homes will not be abandoned in coronavirus pandemic

A Scottish Government spokesperson said it was “vital” that staff and residents in care homes were provided with the care and support they required.

“We are in close contact with the Care Inspectorate to understand the broader impact of Covid-19 ... [we are also] looking to see how the testing of care workers can be increased.”

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