Scotland suffers highest winter death toll in two decades, as calls for inquiry grow

·3 min read
Ambulances at a Scottish hospital - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Ambulances at a Scottish hospital - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Scotland last year suffered its highest winter death toll in two decades, according to official figures, amid demands for a Holyrood inquiry into the SNP government's Covid-19 failings.

National Records of Scotland (NRS) said 23,370 deaths were recorded in the four months of winter 2020/21, the largest total in 30 years with the exception of the winter of 1999/2000.

A report found there were 4,330 "additional" deaths last winter, compared to other seasons of the year, with Covid-19 being the underlying cause in nearly two-thirds of cases.

The figures emerged amid calls for a Holyrood inquiry into the SNP administration's Covid-19 failings, after two Commons select committees published a damning joint report into the UK Government's handling of the pandemic.

The report said the delay locking down at the start of the pandemic was one of the largest public health failures in history, leading to thousands of avoidable deaths.

It said care home residents were treated as an "afterthought", with infected patients discharged from hospitals into homes.

Same mistakes as England

However, Labour pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon's government had repeated many of the same "damning errors" in Scotland, which went into the first lockdown the same day as England, and demanded that she and her ministers be subjected to the same scrutiny.

Public health officials finally admitted in April that Covid-19 outbreaks that ravaged Scotland's care homes may be linked to the SNP government's decision to transfer thousands of elderly hospital patients without testing many of them.

Almost 5,000 patients were sent to care homes between March 1 and May 31 last year, most of whom were not tested. Even more shockingly, more than 100 were transferred despite having tested positive for the virus, without later testing negative.

Ms Sturgeon has announced a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic will start later this year, while a UK-wide inquiry is not expected to start until spring next year.

However, the report by the two select committees has provided the first parliamentary analysis of where the Tory Government went wrong in England, while praising the UK's vaccine roll-out.

Sturgeon ‘ignored warning’

Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour's health spokeswoman, said: "Nicola Sturgeon ignored the same warnings as UK Ministers and with the same tragic outcome.

“At crucial points in the pandemic the UK and Scottish Governments were in lockstep – acting too slowly in response to the danger and failing to warn the public of the risk.

“But while England will benefit from the findings of this robust and detailed report, Scotland has been denied early findings of its own."

The NRS figures showed Covid-19 accounted for 2,850 "additional" deaths last winter, with the seasonal increase in mortality being the second highest in more than 20 years. Older age groups were by far the worst affected.

The other causes of death with the largest seasonal increases last winter were dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and coronary heart disease, which each accounted for an extra 210 deaths.

Scottish NHS acted 'appropriately'

Pete Whitehouse, the NRS director of statistical services, said: "These figures show again the significant impact Covid-19 had on Scotland last winter.

"Compared to the average of the previous five winters, the winter of 2020/21 saw a 10 per cent higher level of mortality, with the majority of additional deaths being due to Covid-19.”

A separate Audit Scotland report found the Scottish NHS acted "fairly and appropriately" while procuring personal protective equipment for staff during the pandemic, with no evidence of preferential treatment or bias.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "While this report is primarily concerned with the actions of the UK Government, we will consider its findings carefully as we continue to respond to the impact of the pandemic in Scotland.

“Since the early stages of our pandemic response we have been committed to a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in Scotland, to ensure that lessons are learned for the future."

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